ATLANTA -- Back in 2009, when Tiger Woods last showed up at the storied East Lake Golf Club, he left with the silver FedExCup, a bonus check for $10 million and another $800,000 and change for his runner-up finish in the TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola. On Thursday, in his first competitive round here since then, he delivered a three-part message wrapped in a round of 66 to the field and anyone else who's interested:
He remembers everything about how to play the golf course; the pieces are all falling into place in his re-tooled swing; he is another step closer to regaining top form.
Could this be the first step in a reprise of Woods's '09 haul? It's a long road to Sunday, but he took over the pole position leading to the FedExCup by tying Justin Rose for the lead in the TOUR Championship. His presence at the top already has shaken up some things, stirred up some others and, for now, suspended any talk of his being "intimidated" by the 23-year-old wunderkind from Northern Ireland, Rory McIlroy.
McIlroy shot 69 and relinquished his familiar spot alongside Woods in the pairings in the process. He is three strokes back in a seven-way tie for 12th. Three rounds remain and it may yet come down to McIlroy and Woods battling for both the TOUR Championship and the FedExCup, but Woods took the measure of McIlroy for the sixth time in their eight head-to-head rounds this season and, for now, McIlroy may benefit from some time away Woods's ever-growing shadow.
Not that the 36-year-old Woods has minded one bit playing with McIlroy during the five Playoffs rounds and three rounds earlier this year in Abu Dhabi. Quite the contrary.
"I enjoy playing with Rory," Woods said. "He's a great kid. Over the years there are certain pairings for me that I've enjoyed, and Rory is one of them."
Feel free to read into that whatever you please. But for the second straight day Woods sounded very much like the player who spent more than 10 consecutive years in two different stretches as the undisputed No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking and would like to reclaim the spot -- currently held by McIlroy -- just as soon as is practicable.
For McIlroy to hold off an assault by Woods this week, he will have to improve his driving. That might be a challenge on a course that will be drying out each of the next three days. By Sunday, East Lake's thin fairways might be running just a little slower than the track at the Atlanta Motor Speedway.
If McIlroy's game has any weakness, it is hitting the ball in the fairway consistently. He is 142nd in driving accuracy on TOUR, because, while the tremendous lag in his driver swing creates speed and power, it can create problems if his timing is a bit off. He is well aware of the tendency.
"If you don't hit fairways, it's hard," McIlroy said. "If you hit the ball in the rough here, it's very, very difficult to get any control on your ball. Obviously, putting the ball on the fairway is a premium, and for the most part today I did that. But any time you don't hit a fairway, you're making life difficult for yourself."
And McIlroy made it a little difficult for himself. As Mark Twain pointed out in his "lies, damn lies and statistics" bromide, stats will bend like Gumby to bolster just about any argument. Woods hit 10 fairways and tied for second in the field in proximity to the hole with his approach shots. Thus, he had more chances for birdie, of which he made five.
By missing seven fairways, McIlroy made hitting the greens more difficult (he hit 11, ranking T22) and getting his shots close to the hole even harder (he averaged 39 feet from the hole, tying for 17th). Both his two bogeys were both caused by missed fairways and he had fewer realistic birdie chances.
What unfolded at the par-5 ninth hole may be telling. In any event, it was entertaining. After McIlroy pounded a towering bomb 337 yards down the fairway, Woods followed him with a 346-yard blast, also in the fairway. Woods made birdie to McIlroy's par, and the drive was the key. Woods smiled when asked about it.
Following an opening-round 69, Rory McIlroy reflects on his play in the TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola.
"I still have it in me," he said. "I just choose not to use it all the time like I used to."
But when the hole fits his eye and the conditions are right, he can keep up with the kids. At home on a course where, in seven appearances, he has won once and finished in the top seven six times, he will now try to stay in front of all of them.
"I've been playing well," he said. "You know, most of the summer, I've played well, so I'm very pleased with the things that Sean and I are working on and it's just a continuation of it. It was nice to get that week off last week and get a little bit of rest.
"I felt fresh."
As for the fresh-faced kid with the freckles, the curly hair and the steely eyes, he isn't planning on changing much or going anywhere. It's his first TOUR Championship, but not his first rodeo.
"I don't think it's any sort of disadvantage coming here for the first time," he said. "It's all out there in front of you. Not really much course knowledge or local knowledge needed."
This has all the necessary ingredients for a memorable finish, if the first round is any measure.
Larry Dorman is a freelance columnist for PGATOUR.COM. His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.