Storylines aplenty at Tour Championship

The real challenge to this Tour Championship — thicker even than the Bermuda rough at East Lake or the ZZ Top starter beard on Kevin Chappell’s caddie — is to keep on top of all the different intrigues at play in this one tournament.

There are competitions within competitions going on here, a nesting doll of self-interests, one fitting neatly in another to make for one very complex whole.

This stopped being a simple golf tournament a long time ago.

There’s Dustin Johnson, playing to protect his position as the top claimant to the FedEx Cup and the $10 million bonus that comes with it. This the points leader did quite nicely at the end of the Tour Championship’s first quarter (a football reference for all those in these parts who only see the world that way).

Little surprise that Johnson headlined a three-way lead at the close of business Thursday, his 4-under 66 tied with Chappell and Hideki Matsuyama. He simply transferred the dominance he showed at the previous playoff event — winning the BMW Championship by three shots — to his account at East Lake.

Johnson’s opening remark was quite forceful, something of a primal scream really. Playing the new No. 1 at East Lake for the first time competitively, he dumped his tee shot into one of the bunkers lining the left side of the fairway. From the sand, 158 yards out, he deposited his approach just two feet from the hole. A mighty birdie indeed.

“A nice shot to start the day. I was just worried about getting it out of the bunker, but, obviously, I hit it really solid,” he said.

His closing statement wasn’t bad, either. He nearly drove his tee shot into the seemingly unreachable water on the new No. 18, flexing a muscle with which no one else out here is familiar. Dry, he got his birdie and planted his flag at the top of the leaderboard.

There’s the case of Chappell, the 30-year-old quite adept at collecting PGA Tour place money (three seconds this season alone) but still looking for his first tournament victory.

He knows, even though the numbers fairy back at PGA Tour HQ has laid out a complex scenario in which he could win it all, he’s not going home with the $10 mill. “It’s not going to happen,” he said. The Georgia Lottery is probably not going to adopt that for a motto.

And Chappell knows what it might take to claim that elusive first victory. “I need to play 72 holes like I played the front nine here, probably not take my foot off the gas like it appeared on the back (nine),” he said.

Chappell’s first-side 31 Thursday, which featured a chip-in from 50 feet on the par 3 second hole, certainly would be a winning pace, if only he could sustain. Not likely. Indications are East Lake might have its teeth this week.

Of course, there’s those big names that find themselves in the unfamiliar part of the marquee under the heading “Also Featuring.”

Rory McIlroy committed back-to-back double bogeys Thursday — on Nos. 7 and 8 — and still came in a 2 under, two off the lead. Jordan Spieth had some bounce-back to him, too. He began the day like someone playing from the members’ tees, going bogey double-bogey right out of the gate. And, still, he came in the same as McIlroy, with a 68.

Then, lastly, there’s the little clutch of players who want to come out to East Lake and show a little leg, maybe flash a smile and couple of scores in the 60s and convince Davis Love III to make them the final pick for the U.S. Ryder Cup squad. He makes that choice Sunday evening.

Chappell might be in the running. And certainly a couple of former Georgia Bulldogs would like to think they are.

Bubba Watson dearly wants to be on that team. Maybe too dearly. He took that added pressure to a course that never seems to suit him and shot 72 Thursday.

Kevin Kisner, who finished dead last in his first Tour Championship last year, at 18 over par, picked an advantageous time to shoot is first sub-par round at East Lake, a 67.

On the Ryder Cup issue, Kisner said, “Well, you know the old saying: It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. We’ve got a long way to go to get to Sunday, but I need to be in that top three or four to probably steer (Love’s) head a little bit.”

That will require much good work through the weekend. Which prompted the question of the good Bulldog: Who will have the better Saturday, you or that football team travelling to Ole Miss.

“Hopefully me. I don’t like (the Bulldogs) chances,” he said grimly.

That’s another intrigue for another venue.