ATLANTA – The crowd at East Lake was larger and louder than it has been in five years, which was the last time Tiger Woods was at the Tour Championship.
It was no coincidence.
Woods played one of his best rounds of the year in his return to the FedEx Cup finale and caused the biggest cheer of a sun-baked Thursday afternoon by making an eagle putt from just over 25 feet on the par-5 18th for a 5-under 65 and a share of the lead with Rickie Fowler.
It was the second time in as many FedEx Cup playoff events that Woods was tied for the 18-hole lead. He shot a 62 at Aronimink in the opening round of the BMW Championship two weeks ago on a rain-soaked course that allowed just about everyone to go low.
This felt even better on a dry, tougher East Lake course.
"This was by far better than the 62 at Aronimink," Woods said. "Conditions were soft there. This, it's hard to get the ball closer. If you drive the ball in the rough, you know you can't get the ball close. You just can't control it."
Fowler, who missed two playoff events recovering from an injury to his right oblique, putted for birdie on all but two holes for his 65 as he tries to avoid ending the season without a victory. Justin Rose, in his debut as the No. 1 player in the world, got up and down from a bunker for birdie on the 18th for a 66 and was tied with Gary Woodland. Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas were another shot behind. Sixteen players in the 30-man field broke par on a hot afternoon with only a light breeze.
Woods already considers this a successful year just because he made it into the 30-man field for the FedEx Cup finale, where everyone has a mathematical shot at capturing a $10 million bonus. He started the season in January after a fourth surgery on a bad back that had limited him to 16 PGA Tour events in the previous four seasons.
"To be able to play golf again and to earn my way back to this level is something that I was hoping I would do at the beginning of the year, but I didn't know," Woods said. "And I've done it."
This was more about precision, and Woods said he felt in total control. He opened with a three-putt bogey from 25 feet, and he twice ran birdie attempts farther beyond the hole than he would have liked. But after making birdie putts from 25 feet on No. 5 and from 15 feet on No. 6, he was on his way.