McIlroy edges ahead in Tiger battle as world No 1 takes share of lead at Crooked Stick
23:21 GMT, 6 September 2012
Round nine of 16 in the heavyweight contest for the $10 million FedEx Cup proved another spellbinding affair at Crooked Stick on Thursday.
Wearing blue, from Jupiter, Florida, Tiger Woods turned in a dazzling display with his putter to demonstrate that just because he made it to $100 million in winnings last week, he wouldn't mind another juicy chunk.
Wearing red, from Holywood, Northern Ireland, Rory McIlroy was every bit his equal and quite a bit more – isn't it the way these days – as an enormous first day crowd revelled in the fireworks to give the first day the feel of a major rather than the first day of this BMW Championship.
All smiles: McIlroy edged out Woods after a pulsating first day's play at Crooked Stick
Yes, it's true a number of other gifted players could end up claiming the mammoth prize when it all concludes in a fortnight's time on the Sunday before the Ryder Cup.
But right now, it's hard to see past the game's two leading figures, currently walking stride by stride down every fairway and at the top of the FedEx rankings. McIlroy finished up with a 64 for a share of the lead, with Woods just a stroke behind.
McIlroy could barely contain his excitement at the finish, following a day when his approach shots were simply stunning to observe. Indeed, so good were they, the USPGA Champion later hailed them as among the best he has ever played.
Perfect start: McIlroy finished up with a 64 for a share of the lead
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'That was a really great day,' he said. 'With the soft conditions we had a chance to attack the flags and I really did that. It has been a great run for me and now I just want to keep it going because it is very important to go into the last event of this FedEx race in first place.'
Woods was only happy to hand all the kudos to Rory on this day. 'I scored very well today, I was fortunate to shoot the number I came in with, but Rory played absolutely beautifully,' he said. 'Every single part of his game was working. It all looked good.'
This third event of four saw the top three in the FedEx race all playing together but Nick Watney, sandwiched between McIlroy in pole position and Woods in third, looked and played like a spare part for much of the round, before rallying late on to finish with a 70. Perhaps the disappointment of just missing out on a Ryder Cup wild card weighed heavily.
Best of enemies: Woods and McIlroy enjoy each others' company on the golf course
As is the way with McIlroy and Woods, the friendliest of rivals, the day started with a joke. There was Tiger, filling in the time before he was announced to the tee, regaling the man who always looked up to him with a story that ended with young Rory bursting into laughter.
It wasn't long before they had something to smile about on the course as well. At the first both had good birdie opportunities and both fell. So it began, a truly dazzling display of artistry from the pair. Yes, some heavy storms in the days leading up to the event had made the greens like dartboards and caused the organisers to play preferred lies on the fairways. But there was still so much to admire about the manner in which the pair took advantage to dismantle this Pete Dye layout.
Take the par three 13th – they had begun at the 10th – where Tiger's tee shot came within inches of falling into the hole. An ace would have won him one of the sponsor's more swanky products. Like he needs one.
On the prowl: Tiger is just one shot of McIlroy after the first day
It's no exaggeration to say that with a bit more fortune, Woods could have had two aces. At the 6th, his tee shot hit the flagstick and stayed out. Rory A bogey at the 13th suggested his momentous win in Boston, achieved less than 72 hours earlier, had taken something out of him. As events were to prove, that poor dropped shot motivated rather than deflated, as he struck two stunning iron shots to the next two holes to set up a birdie and an eagle.
McIlroy won last week's tournament on the strength of his putting, averaging fewer than 26 putts per round and here he as at it again. Once more he needed just 26 blows with the flat stick, although some of them were tap-ins, owing to the quality of his iron play.
All white on the night: Donald hit a fine 66
'It's always a lot of fun to play with Rory, he is the next generation of the game,' said Tiger. 'He hits it great, putts it great, and on top of that he is a really nice kid. The game of golf is in great hands with him, and he is here to stay.'
The two best players at the Ryder Cup were not the only ones to show form, with the contest now less than three weeks away. World No 2 Luke Donald played his best round for a month or so with a fine 66.
This week's defending champion Justin Rose compiled a skilfully played 67, while his playing partner Lee Westwood continued his recent improvement on the greens with a 68.
Ian Poulter and Graeme McDowell both need to do well here to make the final cut of 30 players who will contest the last FedEx event, the Tour Championship. Both began well with rounds of 68, with the highlight of McDowell's round being when he holed an iron shot from 154 yards to the par four 8th.
As for Poulter, the best putter statistically on tour from between 3ft and 7ft feet – he is averaging over 94 per cent – stunned everyone by somehow managing to three putt from the outer limit of that range.
'When was the last time I did that I couldn't tell you but it would be a long time ago,' he said.
As for the Americans, Zach Johnson shot 67, while Dustin Johnson recorded a 68. Matt Kuchar, Brandt Snedeker, Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk all came in with rounds of 69.
But the first round was all about two players and one of the best things is they get to do it all over again on Friday morning.