NORTON, Mass. – Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods played together in the opening two rounds of the season in Abu Dhabi. They were together again for the opening two rounds at Bethpage Black for the start of the FedEx Cup playoffs. The idea is to get them together with a trophy on the line.
Both took a step in that direction Saturday in the Deutsche Bank Championship.
McIlroy went from one extreme to another on par 5s just 30 minutes apart — a 4-iron into 10 feet for eagle on No. 18, a 5-wood in the water for bogey on No. 2 — but steadied himself for another 6-under 65.
Woods, playing in the afternoon, had three birdies on the opening six holes until he could no longer get a putt to drop. He made birdie putts of 30 feet and 15 feet late in the round to salvage a 68, which left him only two shots behind.
In between was Louis Oosthuizen, the former British Open champion with one of the purest swings in golf. Oosthuizen had four 2s on his card of 65, and goes into the third round just one shot behind and in the final group with McIlroy.
"Everything seemed to work pretty well out there," McIlroy said. "I felt like I drove the ball a bit better today and hit more fairways, which gave me some more opportunities to make birdies. And I was putting well enough to take a few of those. Yeah, pleased with where I am and looking forward to the weekend."
The weekend is half over, as this FedEx Cup playoff event is known for its Labor Day finish. There remains plenty of work to be done, especially with nine players separated by only three shots going into the weekend.
Ryan Moore had a 68, playing the front nine in 1 over, and joined Woods at 10-under 132.
Woods missed out on a chance to be paired with McIlroy on Sunday when he missed the fairway on the par-5 18th, laid up short of the marsh and came up just short of the green and its front hole location. He had to get up-and-down for par.
Even so, this Labor Day weekend could bring another heavyweight bout, the likes of which the Deutsche Bank Championship has seen before in its 10-year history.
The TPC Boston is where Woods and Vijay Singh had a memorable battle on Labor Day in 2004, when Singh won to replace Woods at No. 1 in the world. Two years later, Woods closed with a 63 to rally from a three-shot deficit against Singh. And in the first year of the FedEx Cup in 2007, it was Phil Mickelson who played three rounds with Woods and wound up beating him by two shots.
"I think if you look at the overall list of champions here, they're all big hitters," Woods said in an effort to explain why the Deutsche Bank Championship provides such great theater.
McIlroy, who won the PGA Championship by a record eight shots at Kiawah Island three weeks ago, looked comfortable on the smoother greens of TPC Boston and had only one bad spell of back-to-back bogeys on his back nine.
Woods came out firing in the afternoon with back-to-back birdies, only to get slowed quickly with a bogey from the bunker on No. 3 and going bunker-to-bunker on the fourth hole when he scrambled for par. He got back with a shot into 3 feet on the sixth for birdie, but he couldn't take advantage of several shots in the 12- to 15-foot range.
It looked as though it was getting under his skin, but all he had to do was think back to that opening round of 64.
"You've got to let it balance itself out because I made everything yesterday," he said. "Today was one of those days where I had some good looks, missed them, but didn't feel like I was really rolling it correctly. Then I figured something out, and then from then on, I poured it pretty good."
First-round leader Seung-yul Noh (71), Jason Dufner (66) and Masters champion Charl Schwartzel (65) were among those at 9-under 133.
Rickie Fowler made a clutch putt on his final hole, a 4-footer for par that gave him a 72. It looked even more significant at the time because it assured he would make the cut, giving him two more days to make an impression on Davis Love III before he announces his four captain's picks for the Ryder Cup on Tuesday.
Hunter Mahan had a 72 to end his untimely streak of two missed cuts, boosting his hopes of getting one of the four picks. Dustin Johnson also stayed in the mix, going into the weekend only five shots out of the lead. Brandt Snedeker had only three pars in 12 holes, then settled down for a 70 and was at 3-under 139.
McIlroy wasn't much of a factor in the opening playoff event last week at Bethpage Black, where the greens were baked out by sunshine and nearly dead by the third round, making it difficult to score. The greens have been pure at the TPC Boston, and it showed in the scoring.
Then again, he didn't have to make putts from very far. McIlroy made three birdies from inside 10 feet — one of them a tap-in on the 14th — and he seized the lead on the par-5 18th. Even though the pin was to the front of the smaller, treacherous green, there was enough wind in his face that he could get 4-iron in the air and have it land softly. It rode a gentle slope to about 10 feet away and he made the eagle putt.
After an 18-foot birdie putt on No. 1, McIlroy was poised to get some separation on the field until he tried to hit a high cut with a 5-wood on the par-5 second. He pushed it too far, into the water, and made bogey.
"That was a really tricky little pin position there on the second," he said. "If you lay up, you're going to have to hit a really good shot to get it close to try and make birdie. I'm sure it played a little easier yesterday, but you'll probably see just as many bogeys as you do birdies there today."
On the next hole, his long putt from the fringe was weak and came up 8 feet short, and he missed that for another bogey. But that was that. He followed with back-to-back birdies to get back to 12 under, and made a 12-foot par putt on the eighth to keep from dropping another shot.
McIlroy attributed the improvement from last week to one thing.
"My putting," he said. "I wasn't very comfortable on the greens at all last week. They weren't the best surfaces. I think everyone saw that. This week, the surfaces are much better, and it gives you a little more confidence that you can roll your putts at the hole a bit more."