News & ToursAugust 8, 2019

7 takeaways from an action-packed Thursday at the Northern Trust

GOLF: AUG 08 PGA - THE NORTHERN TRUST
Icon Sportswire(Photo by John Jones/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

JERSEY CITY, N.J. — There are 12 rounds of play in the FedEx Cup Playoffs. If Thursday at Liberty National is a presage, golf fans are in for a treat. Seventeen players shot 66 or better on Day 1 of the Northern Trust, and the leader board is a who's who of the game's best.

Here are seven takeaways from Thursday's action in Jersey City:

Why Thursday was actually good for Tiger
Yes, his four-over 75 was one of the worst scores of the day, putting him 13 shots behind leader Troy Merritt. Conversely, 24 hours after he stopped hitting drivers and irons mid-practice round because of back stiffness, Woods, 43, appeared physically fine. His swings were loose and powerful, even sprinkling in a few recoils. And the tired, weighted strides seen Wednesday were replaced with an energetic, purposeful walk.

He'll need something special to make it to the weekend, but after sending the sport into a mild panic with his halted pro-am, Woods should be good to make a final push toward East Lake next week at Medinah.

Don't expect the same low scores this weekend
Thursday morning offered prime scoring conditions: Wet terrain in warm weather with zero wind. That the top eight on the leader board teed off in the first wave is no coincidence.

However, Liberty National dried off from Wednesday's storm, and the forecast calls for steady breezes into the weekend. Oakmont this is not, and several of the holes are constructed to facilitate fireworks. But it would be a surprise to see more 62s and 63s going forward.

Webb's Ways
Statisticians have long disapproved the "drive for show, putt for dough" adage. Which is what makes Webb Simpson's performance this season—ninth in the FedEx Cup standings—all the more captivating, conceding a lack of pop for precision and putting. The 2012 U.S. Open champ is tied for fifth at Liberty National despite ranking 91st in strokes gained/off the tee on Thursday, going low thanks to solid iron work (10th in approach) and short game (seventh in putting). This alternative approach is a welcome sight to the sometimes-numbing bomb-and-gouge strategy that's permeated the professional ranks.

Speaking of muscle …

Ben Jared

The Big Bad Wolff
The knock on Matthew Wolff—if there's a knock on one of three players to win an NCAA Championship and PGA Tour event in the same year—is his game is one-dimensional at the moment. See ball, hit ball, ball go far. Although that attack worked at the wet, wide-open 3M Open, and would play on a number of PGA Tour set-ups, he's far from a well-rounded product.

Which, duh: he's 20. Still, following Wolff's final nine holes on Thursday afternoon, there are signs that this is something he'll need to work through. Wolff made seven birdies on the day, but he also had three bogeys and a double. He struggled in the wind, his approaches routinely ballooning in the afternoon gusts, and he made a handful of unforced errors around the green.

Yet, mentioned above, he did make seven birdies, and though he has the earned reputation of a bomber, he's not of the grip-it-and-rip-it mold, keeping the driver in the bag for most of the back nine in favor of a 3-wood to maneuver the ball in the fairway. In short, parts of Wolff's game are in need of refinement … and when they're polished, watch out.

Crowd control
Fans weren't allowed on property for the first hour of play Thursday morning as tournament officials repaired damage caused by vicious weather on Wednesday. But by the afternoon, a few spectators seemed, uh, well served. Particularly at the par-3 14th grandstands. There were numerous catcalls for the final groups, and caddie Michael Greller stared through the soul of one blabbermouth. We weren't approaching Bethpage on the behavior spectrum; then again, it was Thursday. Something to keep an eye on this weekend.

Can this be Jordan Spieth's breakout?
It's reasonable to temper expectations after the three-time major winner's 67 on Thursday. After all, Spieth is 10th this season in Thursday scoring, and second on Friday. It's Saturday (172nd) and Sunday (195th) where the problems reside.

However, Spieth was one of the few players to go low in the afternoon wave, and he did it thanks to his much-maligned approach game (14 of 18 greens in regulation). He also seems to have a bit more conviction in himself this week, knowing he needs a strong showing to make it to the BMW Championship.

The leader board is promising for the weekend, but no name is as enticing as a revitalized Spieth.

A word on Rory
Rory McIlroy bogeyed his first hole of the day. His irons were off, finishing 74th in approach. He parred the innocuous eighth.

That he still shot six under and is just three back should scare the bejesus out of the field.