NEWTOWN SQUARE, Pa. — A day of rest, an old, trusty putter in the bag and a golf ball that was seemingly flying forever Thursday helped Tiger Woods produce his best score in more than five years.
Woods played his first nine holes in 29 strokes, hit 16 greens in regulation and shot 8-under-par 62 at Aronimink Golf Club in the first round of the BMW Championship.
It was just the fourth time in 17 tournaments in 2018 that Woods opened with a round under par.
Rory McIlroy also shot 62 to tie for the lead, with Xander Schauffele a shot back. Justin Thomas is tied for fourth, 2 shots back, along with Billy Horschel, Peter Uihlein and Alex Noren. It was Woods’ best score since shooting 61 at the 2013 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, where he won the last of his 79 PGA Tour titles.
“You definitely could do it today,” said Woods, who hit 12 tee shots that traveled at least 300 yards. “The fairways are ample wide and the greens are soft. All the positives right now. We’re driving it down there anywhere between 310 and 340 so it’s really not that long a golf course right now.
“Lot of wedges and you have to hit your wedges well, get your distance.”
Tiger, Rory and a Sunday duel? Everybody slow down
Sure, Tiger went low, finally getting off to a fast start in a tournament. But even his caddie knows there’s a long way to go.
Woods did that, but you still have to make the putts — something that was not happening for him of late. Playing with his third different putter in three weeks — his Scotty Cameron that dates to 1999 and with which he won 13 of his 14 majors — Woods found some comfort on the greens and was seventh in the field of 69 in strokes gained, putting.
The 29 came over Woods’ first nine holes, the back nine at Aronimink, and it included four birdies and an eagle. It was the sixth sub-30 score of his career and the first since he shot 28 during the second round at East Lake during the 2007 Tour Championship.
For a time, it appeared that McIlroy might best him. The Northern Irishman, who won earlier this year at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, had a stretch of six straight birdies from the 18th through the fifth holes to get to 9 under par on his round before making consecutive bogeys at the seventh and eighth. He added a birdie at the ninth to tie Woods.
“If someone had given me a 62 on the first tee this morning I would have taken it,” McIlroy said. “So, it’s a great way to start the golf tournament. My game feels obviously in really good shape. There’s a lot of good signs out there. My approach play, my wedge play has been much better. I putted well. Basically did everything well and looking forward to getting back out there early in the morning and trying to get it going again.”
Despite his victory earlier this year, it has been — by McIlroy’s standards — somewhat of a disappointing season. He has struggled with his wedge play, and while he finished second at The Open to Francesco Molinari, he was not able to put up the charge necessary to win.
A final-round grouping with Patrick Reed at the Masters looked promising until his putting stroke left him.
He missed the cut at the U.S. Open and then tied for 50th at the PGA Championship, which made him decide to take off the first FedEx Cup playoff event to work on his game.
“Sometimes if a major season doesn’t go your way and you haven’t done what you wanted to do it’s just a bit of a reset, let’s go again, re-assess your goals,” McIlroy said. “I guess that’s what I did.”
Woods tied for 24th last week at the Dell Technologies Championship, where he had put a new TaylorMade prototype putter in play, one that looks similar to the Cameron but that has grooves on the face much like the mallet-like putter he had been using. Woods began the year using the Cameron and did so through the U.S. Open before switching to TaylorMade’s Ardmore at the Quicken Loans National in late June. He used that putter to contend at both The Open and the PGA Championship, where he shot a final-round 64.
“I’ve hit hundreds of millions of putts (with the Cameron), I’ve had it since ’99,” Woods said. “I’ve hit putts with it. My body just remembers it. When I got away from it, and back when I was using the Nike putter, I’d always bring it out and hit putts with it. Sometimes it works but it just feels very familiar to me.”
But it wasn’t all about the putter Thursday. Woods had a few chances that didn’t drop, but gave himself opportunities. He hit 16 of 18 greens and was bombing drives, missing just five fairways.
It didn’t hurt that Woods took Wednesday off. After a disappointing finish on Monday at the Dell Technologies Championship — he played his last five holes in 3 over par — Woods played nine holes at Aronimink on Tuesday, then opted out of the pro-am Wednesday.
“I needed it; I really did,” said Woods, who is playing three weeks in a row for the first time since early in 2013. “I played a lot of golf in the last six weeks and I needed a day to recover and make sure I was fresh for today. The Monday finish, back things up and looking at how it was. … I wanted to manage it. Disappointed I didn’t play in the pro-am but also it was the best thing for me.”
Woods will hold a share of the first-round lead for the first time since the 2013 WGC-Cadillac Championship, a tournament he went on to win.
Due to the possibility of poor weather, tee times for the second round have been moved up Friday to 7-9 a.m., with Woods teeing off at 8:06 a.m.