From there, Cantlay and Rahm began the process of gaining real separation from the rest of the privileged pack – both playing their final six holes in 3 under, determined to turn this weekend into a two-man money grab. By day’s end, after factoring in their FedEx Cup handicap, Cantlay was at 17 under, one up on a Rahm who keeps getting larger and larger in the leader’s rearview mirror. Starting this thing four back of Cantlay because of the staggered scoring system, Rahm is making up ground in stilt-walker strides.
In third, six back of Cantlay at 11 under after a Friday 67, was Bryson DeChambeau. He keeps looking like a non-factor until the sun is low and the shadows are long. On Thursday he got himself back into it with a close of three birdies. On Friday, back-to-back last-minute birdies on Nos. 17 and 18 saved him, the birdie putt on the final hole circumnavigating the cup before deciding to drop.
Justin Thomas, whose two bogeys and a missed 6-footer for birdie on his final three holes were unsightly warts, shot 67 on Friday and is in fourth at 10 under.
What everyone else faces this weekend is one player who is as steady as a metronome and another who can at any moment set the leaderboard on fire.
Cantlay doesn’t look like he’s going to help anybody. He is not giving anything back. He is going to get in his steps this weekend with an expression as fixed as the Mona Lisa’s. And he is going to minimize mistakes, as in Friday’s bogey-free excursion to a 66. It was his first bogey-free round of the 14 he’s played at East Lake.
His review of the day was cold-blooded and technical. “I played well all day, but didn’t really get the most I could have out of my round,” he said. “But then birdied the last couple holes, made a couple nice putts (15 feet for birdie on 17, 8 feet for birdie on 18).
“I think that’s kind of this golf course: You don’t ever really want to press because it’s that classic golf course where you don’t want to short side yourself, you don’t want to hit it over greens. So staying really diligent and hitting the ball to the fat side I think is a good recipe for success around this place.”
And, at the other end of the color spectrum, Rahm looks like he’s more than capable of taking what he wants. No one has more than his 13 birdies over these first two days, just as no one can match his rounds of 65-65. He is 8 under on the back nine through two rounds. If it’s close at the end, advantage Rahm.
He’ll be paired again with Cantlay on Saturday, and they may very well find themselves together all weekend. Saturday will mark the 20th time they’ve been paired over their careers, and Cantlay’s calm presence seems to sit well with Rahm, who has been known to be on the volcanic side.
“When you have somebody like him who played a round with very few mistakes – you could argue that it could have been a lot lower – it only motivates me to keep doing a little bit better,” Rahm said.
Rahm added, “Even though I want to focus on myself, you know he’s not going to let up, and he keeps putting it in the fairway and on the green and in the fairway and on the green. It can raise your playing level a little bit as well as much as me raising his level when I’m making birdies. So, we definitely feed off each other, and that’s probably why you see the difference in the scoreboard right now.”
It may have taken just a while before the two of them got up to speed Friday, but it surely was worth the wait. Now the weekend demands more of their good work in tandem.