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Hello East Lake: Woods, McIlroy go low, strengthen Tour Championship bids

After five years going without a victory, Tiger Woods has miles to go and much golf to play before he’s posing with any more garishly large trophies.

But, after shooting an 8-under 62 here Thursday in the BMW Championship, his lowest round since 2013, his place at the Tour Championship in two weeks got a whole lot more secure.

On a smoldering hot afternoon outside Philadelphia, Woods turned up the heat even more during the first round of the BMW. Beginning his day on the back side of the Aronimink Golf Club, he put up a 6-under 29 on his first nine. It was his first sub-30 nine holes since 2007, at East Lake, at the Tour Championship he won by eight strokes.

Only a bogey on his next-to-last hole marred an otherwise flawless scorecard. In hitting 16 of 18 greens in regulation, Woods put together a day of golf the way he used to, back before all the personal drama and the various pains in the back. 

In the process of taking a share of the first-round lead - his first time leading after any round since the 2015 Wyndham Championship - Woods also took an express elevator up the FedEx Cup points standings. The top 30 in points advance in two weeks to East Lake and the Tour Championship, the season-ending event that has been Woods-less since 2013. Beginning the day at No. 25, he projected at No. 5 by the close of business. These standings are quite volatile, subject to ebbs and flows of three more days of competition, but nothing less than an epic collapse should keep Woods out of the East Lake proceedings.

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Tying Woods for the lead, and also seeming to secure his place in the Tour Championship, was Rory McIlroy. He began Thursday 24th in FedEx Cup points. His 62 propelled him to No. 4 in the points projections.

McIlroy rode a mid-round binge of six straight birdies to his big day. 

“It's a great way to start the golf tournament,” he said. “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.”

Woods made his 8-under look even easier (McIlroy did suffer a pair of bogeys along the way, tsk, tsk). 

For as good as this 62 was, there was a chance Woods could have squeezed even more from it. He had four putts of 16 feet or less for birdie that went begging. Another from 19 feet just lipped out.

Woods switched back to his plain Scotty Cameron putter for this round, but he was hitting so many shots stiff that he could have used a coffee can tied to the end of a short oak branch. On the front side, he made birdie putts of 20, 13, 10 and four feet. On the par-5 16th hole, his sixth of the day, Woods hit his second shot to five feet for a simple eagle.

Hard to believe Woods says he handles the heat poorly.

“It's hard for me because I lose so much weight out here. I don't eat enough calories because of (drinking) so much water, you know. Therein lies the issue,” he said.
“I lose so much weight and lose strength and I lose power and endurance. It's a task. It always has been my entire career playing in hot conditions trying to keep my weight.”

He disguised fatigue as excellence Thursday. Woods’ decision to skip Wednesday’s Pro Am, and to get in only nine holes of practice on Tuesday may have paid dividends this opening round.
“I needed (the down time),” he said. “I really did. I just played a lot of golf in the last what, six weeks, and I needed a day off to recover and make sure I was fresh for today.”

Woods will have to somehow stay fresh if he’s going to keep up with the scoring pace this week. Rain was forecast for the area later Thursday, which would make the Aronimink Golf Club even more compliant.

“The way the conditions are, especially with the rain that's forecast, I can't see the scoring being any different than what it was today,” McIlroy said. “I think there's going to be a lot of guys going very low and you’ll probably see quite a bunched leaderboard at the end of the week.”

Bunched behind Woods and McIlroy Thursday were nine other players who shot 65 or better, including last year’s Tour Championship winner Xander Schauffele (63), last year’s FedEx Cup champion Justin Thomas (64) and Rickie Fowler, another star who required a solid showing here to make it to East Lake (65).

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