CARMEL, Ind. — Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy seem to be spending a lot of time together lately. That includes the top of a busy leaderboard at the BMW Championship.
The biggest star in golf and his heir apparent put on a dazzling show Thursday at Crooked Stick, where the gallery caught a glimpse of the best players in the world for the first time since the 1991 PGA Championship.
McIlroy, flawless with his irons, birdied his last two holes for an 8-under 64 and was part of a four-way tie for the lead with Indiana native Bo Van Pelt, U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson and Graham DeLaet, the Canadian who is quietly becoming the Cinderella of these FedEx Cup playoffs.
Just three days after McIlroy won the Deutsche Bank Championship, he looked just as impressive in the opening round at Crooked Stick.
“He hits it great, putts it great and top of that, he’s just a really nice kid,” Woods said in some of his strongest praise ever for another player. “The game of golf is in great hands with him, and he’s here to stay.”
Woods, who finished two shots behind Monday in Boston, isn’t going away quietly. He was only sharp when it came to scoring, making enough birdies to stay in the game, including a 30-foot chip-in on his last hole for a 65.
McIlroy had every reason to be a little flat because of the short turnaround from the Labor Day finish. But that wasn’t the case at the BMW Championship, not with fans lined three-deep down the entire 10th hole to see him and Woods in the same group for the second time in three weeks.
“It definitely gives you a little more of a lift, especially coming off a win and maybe being a little flat,” McIlroy said. “You’re focused from the get-go, and you want to go out and shoot a good number, and I was able to do that today.”
They made it look easy, and Crooked Stick was every bit of that on a broiling afternoon north of Indianapolis.
Because of heavy rains earlier in the week — so fierce on Wednesday that the course was briefly evacuated — players were able to lift, clean and place their golf balls in the short grass before firing at the flags. Really, there was no other option in such soft conditions.
Sixty players in the 70-man field were at par or better. Forty players were in the 60s. All but five holes played under par, and the average score was 69.47.
“I think we all knew it was there for the taking today,” said Justin Rose, who opened with a 67 and was tied for 10th.
Vijay Singh had a chance to join the leaders until he drove into the water on the 18th hole, though he escaped with par and was at 65. Luke Donald was in the group at 66. Phil Mickelson was at 69, worth noting because it looked as though he might quadruple bogey on his last hole. Instead, he made birdie.
His second shot from the fairway on the par-5 ninth sailed toward the corporate tents, and Mickelson feared it was out-of-bounds. He hit a provisional that went onto the driving range, which definitely was out-of-bounds. Before he could hit again, Mickelson discovered the first one was in play. Mickelson had a clear enough shot at the green, and he hasn’t lost his magic with the short game — his wedge settled 2 feet away for a birdie.
“I got lucky,” Mickelson said.
Mickelson played in the group in front of Woods and McIlroy, a dream for any gallery. Even so, cheers could be heard from all ends of Crooked Stick, a testament to how many people were on the course for a Thursday afternoon.
But the biggest crowd followed the two biggest stars at the moment.
“I definitely felt left out for a while,” said Nick Watney, the Barclays winner who played with Woods and McIlroy. “But it was fun to watch. Those guys … they’re really good. Rory swings so aggressively, but he never looks uncomfortable. I wish I could have kept up.”
Watney, who rallied for a 70, opened with four pars and coming off the 13th green said, “I’m playing like the Giants’ offense.” He was talking football, not baseball.
Woods and McIlroy got after it from the start. Woods hit into about 10 feet on the opening hole, and McIlroy hit next to 12 feet. McIlroy made his putt, Woods followed that with his birdie putt. There was a two-shot swing for Woods when he hit 8-iron to 4 feet on the 13th hole and McIlroy went long of the green. There was a two-shot swing for McIlroy when he hit 6-iron to 6 feet on the next hole, and Woods came up short and missed his par putt.
Woods even popped up a tee shot — just like McIlroy did in the final round at Boston — on the fourth hole. It went only 186 yards, so short that marshals came running back down the fairway trying to figure out where it went.
There was a stretch in the middle of the round when on just about every hole, one player would hit it close and the other would match him. They made it look as though they were playing at their home club on a Saturday morning, chatting on the tee and down the fairway, Woods playfully shoving him after an exchange behind the 12th green.
“I’ve always enjoyed playing with Tiger, and every time that we’re paired up, we seem to have a good time,” McIlroy said.
It was the sixth time they played in the same group this year — three times in Abu Dhabi, twice at Barclays and Thursday.
For Woods, he didn’t need the No. 1 player in the world — and the only player besides him in the last half-century to win two majors by at least eight shots — to concentrate on posting a good score. It was the soft ground beneath their feet, the gentle breeze and a 70-man field that meant the greens wouldn’t be chewed up by spike marks.
“We just couldn’t afford to have a bad start today,” he said.
The surprise was DeLaet, the Canadian who started these playoffs at No. 106 until he tied for fifth at The Barclays. Now he’s No. 60 and facing elimination — only the top 30 go to East Lake for the Tour Championship — but with an eagle on his last hole, he’s tied for the lead.