ATLANTA — In the one week Tiger Woods had away from golf during the FedEx Cup playoffs, Nick Faldo said he had lost his aura, Greg Norman said he was intimidated by Rory McIlroy and Johnny Miller claimed Woods once wanted lessons from him.
"Nice week, huh?" Woods said, grinning.
Even better was to be back on the course Thursday at the Tour Championship, where Woods had the final word for at least for one day. He kept the ball in play at East Lake, chipped in for one of his six birdies and wound up with 4-under 66 for a share of the lead with Justin Rose.
It was the first step toward what Woods hopes is a third Cup title, and another $10 million bonus.
"I probably could have gotten a couple more out of it," Woods said about his opening round, "but I was probably right on my number."
McIlroy, playing with Woods for the fifth time in these playoffs, got up-and-down from the par-3 18th for 69. McIlroy is trying to become the first player since Woods in 2006 to win three straight PGA Tour events in the same season, and he wasn't overly alarmed by his start.
"Wish I could have shot a couple shots better," he said. "But I'm in a good position going into (today)."
The week began with Norman saying Woods was intimidated by McIlroy, a suggestion both players found amusing. While it's doubtful that inspired Woods, he played as if he wasn't ready to let McIlroy win a third straight playoff event and capture the Cup.
McIlroy, who has won three of his past four tournaments, and Woods are among the top-five seeds at East Lake who only have to win the Tour Championship to claim the largest payoff in golf. Woods wasn't interested in what anyone else was doing.
"Just winning," he said. "Winning takes care of everything."
Rose, who hasn't won since Doral in March, swiftly moved up the leaderboard late in his round with three birdies over the last five holes, and the last one was memorable. From the back of the green on the par-3 18th, Rose faced a 50-foot putt with some 20 feet of break from right to left. It looked wide the whole way until it snapped back toward the cup.
Scott Piercy ran off three straight birdies late in his round until he stumbled in the rough behind the 18th green and finished with double bogey for 67, tied with Steve Stricker, Matt Kuchar and Bo Van Pelt.
Hunter Mahan was tied at 68 with Brandt Snedeker, who is among the top-five seeds. The others are Phil Mickelson, who opened with 69, and Nick Watney, who brought up the rear with 75.
Despite the Tour Championship featuring the top 30 on the PGA Tour, the focus again returned to the top two players.
A boisterous gallery lined the fairways and crowded behind every green to see the latest edition of Tiger and Rory, and they didn't disappoint. McIlroy is playing East Lake for the first time, and he struggled with the Bermuda rough around the greens.
"If you don't hit fairways, it's hard," McIlroy, 23, said. "If you hit the ball in the rough here, it's very, very difficult to get any control on your ball."
Woods, 36, again had McIlroy's number when playing together, even though Boy Wonder is winning more trophies. Woods has posted the lower score in four of the five rounds they have played together in the playoffs.
Woods, as usual, didn't read too much into that.
"I enjoy playing with Rory," he said. "He's a great kid. Over the years, there are certain pairings for me that I've enjoyed, and Rory is one of them."
LPGA: Lexi Thompson made a little more history at the Navistar LPGA Classic in Prattville, Ala., opening her title defense with a career-best 9-under 63 to match the tournament record. Last year, Thompson became the youngest champion in LPGA Tour history at age 16 when she won the event. Lydia Ko, 15, broke the record last month in the Canadian Women's Open.
Trailing Thompson were Lizette Salas and Hee Young Park, who were tied for second at 65. Tampa resident Kristy McPherson shot 71, Seminole's Brittany Lincicome 72 and Tampa's Cindy LaCrosse 74.