Rickie Fowler was in mid-dissection of his quite-fine 65 on Thursday, when just over his shoulder there came a mighty roar from the 18th green.
You just got company atop the leaderboard, young man. Your thoughts?
“I don’t know who it was,” he said.
Really? You have no clue? “No.”
There is no roar quite like a Tiger Woods roar. Perhaps it has been so long that we all have to get used to hearing it again.
Rolling in that sloping 28-foot eagle putt, Woods put the exclamation point on a first-round 65, a share of the early Tour Championship lead and the surest sign yet that there is golfing life left after you’ve had your spine soldered like a broken fence post.
Quite a storm of fully met anticipation brewed this day within the intimate confines of East Lake Golf Club. How rare is that in the sporting marketplace when the customers get more than they expected?
It’s a corner of the golfing world Woods hasn’t worked for five years, but it was almost like he had never been away. In fact this first round was a vast improvement over the 73 he posted Thursday in 2013, his last appearance at East Lake. It was the lowest round he shot here since 2007, when he won the thing.
Wearing a sweat-soaked, peach-colored shirt for the Georgia setting, Woods looked right at home here. Who are we kidding? Every tournament is a home game for this guy – that has only intensified with his comeback from spinal-fusion surgery – and it was no different at East Lake.
“I’ve been gone for a while and come back, and I hadn’t played this tournament in five years. And some of the people said they haven’t been out here in five years,” Woods said. “That’s kind of nice that they’re coming out and supporting this event and supporting me, as well.”
The Woods Comeback Tour has been accelerating greatly since his runner-up finish at the PGA Championship. This is the second consecutive tournament in which he has bolted out to the first-round lead.
One difference – he considered his Thursday 65 trumping the 62 he fired two weeks ago for the first-round lead of the BMW Championship.
“This was far better than the 62,” he said. “The conditions were soft (at the BMW). It’s hard to get the ball closer here. If you drive the ball in the rough, you can’t get the ball close here. It puts a premium on driving and puts a premium on allowing for a little bit of chase on some of those greens.”
This was a very low-stress 65. Woods has had more dramatic haircuts. He has faced more difficult decisions ordering dinner.
“I hit so many quality shots all day, whether it was tee to green or it was putts,” he said. “I didn’t really mis-hit a single shot today.” Woods hit 10 of 14 fairways (third in the field), and 14 of 18 greens in regulation.
He also had one of the only three eagles for the day, with that tumultuous putt on No. 18, after snuggling a 5-wood inside 30 feet. “It took forever for that putt to start breaking – the grain coming down off the left. But once it snagged it, it was going straight right.” Ah, Tiger Woods speaking his singular golf jargon again.
Once he figured out the speed limit on the East Lake greens – apparently it’s ever changeable, like I-285 – Woods gained complete control of his game. The speed caught him by surprise, running a 24-foot putt on No. 1 five feet past the hole. He missed coming back, for the only bogey blemish on his scorecard.
No, you didn’t miss any screaming headlines. Woods did not win the last tournament in which he grabbed the first-round lead (finishing T-7 at the BMW).
And here, too, there is no shortage of players in position to deny him.
More than half the field finished under par Thursday. Their number includes seven of the top 10 ranked players in the world. World No. 1 Justin Rose is but one back at 4 under, with No. 4 Justin Thomas and No. 5 Rory McIlroy just two back, shooting 3-under 67s.
And Fowler, the world No. 9 who took off the first two playoff events to rest an injured oblique muscle, appears fully recovered.
And quite looking forward to playing in the final pairing Friday with Woods.
“I’ve had the opportunity before, and I definitely am in a lot better position now (playing with Woods) than I was in the early part of my career,” Fowler said.
“There is a little bit of a comfort level that you have to get used to when playing alongside him, especially in a big situation, in the final group. I look forward to it now.”
Fowler will know for certain who the roars are for Friday, should they ring out again.