Tiger Woods finally looked like the No. 1 player in the world.
In his first tournament since his divorce, Woods played by far his best round of the year Thursday at The Barclays, missing only one fairway and two greens in a round of 6-under 65. It was his lowest round of the year.
He was atop the leaderboard at Ridgewood Country Club, with the morning group still not finished.
Woods used his driver only twice, although one was nearly perfect. On the 291-yard fifth hole, his drive landed pin-high and rolled 15 feet away for a two-putt birdie. He finished with a 6-foot birdie.
The timing could not have been better. Woods needs a good week to advance out of the first round of the FedEx Cup playoffs.
Wood's strong performance came a day after the release of a magazine interview with his ex-wife, Elin Nordegren, and just days after the finalization of the pair's divorce.
Nordegren, in what she said will be her only interview, spent 19 hours over four visits with People magazine to give her side of the events that ultimately ended her marriage to Woods. It was short on details—exactly what happened that night after Thanksgiving that caused Woods to drive off in wee morning hours and crash into a tree, and how much he paid in the divorce settlement—and chock-full of heartfelt emotion.
And yet while Nordegren called the past year since the lurid scandal of Wood's infidelities broke 'hell', she reserved high compliments for his golf game.
"I know he is going to go down as the best golfer who ever lived, and rightfully so," she told the magazine. "I feel privileged to have witnessed a part of his golfing career."
Wood's personal travails of the past year had coincided with round after round of dismal performances on the golf course.
While still the No. 1 player in the world ranking—barely —Woods has not won in any of his nine tournaments this year, the longest he has ever gone without a victory. For more telling evidence of his game, look no further than the FedEx Cup standings.
Woods was the No. 1 seed the past three years. He starts the PGA Tour playoffs this time at No. 112, needing to have a decent tournament at The Barclays just to advance to the second round next week.
And perhaps the most telling of all? Because of his low seeding, he was the first to tee off Thursday at Ridgewood Country Club.
Has that ever happened before?
"First off on Saturday and Sunday, yes," Woods said, a joke that barely registered with the media. "But not the first two days."
Woods and Nordegren divorced on Monday. It was announced through a press release from their lawyers, after a hearing that lasted no more than 10 minutes.
"It's hard to think you have this life, and then all of a sudden—was it a lie?" Nordegren said in the interview, which the magazine released about the time Woods teed off in his pro-am. "You're struggling because it wasn't real. But I survived. It was hard, but it didn't kill me."
Woods spoke to the magazine, so this was no surprise.
The surprise came on the first hole of his pro-am, after he hit his approach to the green. Andrea Peyser, a New York Post columnist, walked out into the fairway with notepad and pen to ask him questions. She had never been to a golf tournament and was not aware that reporters were to stay by the ropes.
Later, he was asked about his ex-wife's comments in the magazine.
"I wish her the best in everything," Woods said. "You know, it's a sad time in our lives. And we're looking forward in our lives and how we can help our kids the best way we possibly can. And that's the most important thing."
The focus now shifts to his golf, and Woods indicated as much by saying, "This is my job. This is what I do."
Gone are the days when practice and even some tournament rounds ended with a phone call from lawyers, or a divorce document that had to be approved. Among the more telling details from divorce papers made public were that he signed the marital settlement agreement on the weekend of the AT&T National outside Philadelphia.
Woods handled questions about his golf swing and his divorce in equal fashion, but on one question he was succinct. He was asked to describe how the divorce process had affected his preparations for golf.
"It was a lot more difficult than I was letting on," said.
Despite his strong start Thursday, hard work remains. In the first year of the FedEx Cup playoffs, Woods didn't even bother playing in The Barclays. That was in 2007, when he was playing so well that he could spot the field one tournament and still win the $10 million prize, and he did just that.
He also missed in 2008, this time with knee surgery, when the tournament was played at Ridgewood. It's a Tillinghast course, traditional and tree-lined, and Woods had never seen it until his pro-am round Wednesday.