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

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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 due to back stiffness, the 43-year-old appeared physically fine. His swings were loose and powerful; even sprinkled in a few recoils for good measure. 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 towards 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 surprise.

However, Liberty National dried itself off from Wednesday’s storm, and the forecast calls for steady breezes for the rest of 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 despite ranking 91st in strokes gained/off-the-tee on Thursday, going low thanks to solid iron work (10th in approach) and lights-out short game (seventh in putting). This modus operandi is a welcome sight to the sometimes-numbing bomb-and-gouge strategy that’s permeated the professional ranks.

Speaking of muscle…

Matthew Wolff
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. While that attack worked wonders 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 years old. Still, following Wolff’s final nine holes on Thursday afternoon, there are grains of truth to this notion. While Wolff racked up seven birdies on the day, he also had three bogeys and a double. He struggled to keep his ball out of 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 while 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 this morning as tournament officials repaired damaged caused by vicious weather. 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 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 did it thanks to his much-maligned approach game (14/18 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 promises a marquee-filled 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.

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