The guy who was the big benefactor in the Tour Championship’s new staggered scoring – Justin Thomas – took it all too literally and staggered as much as he scored.
The guy whose name would be worth 35 points in Scrabble if you could use it – Xander Schauffele – continued to own East Lake.
And don’t look now, but the Nos. 1- and 3-ranked players in the world – Brooks Koepka and Rory McIlroy – aren’t just here to admire the Bobby Jones collection in the Tudor clubhouse and pick up a down payment on another beach home.
They held a somewhat contrived playoff finale at East Lake and a real golf tournament broke out. With players spotted strokes according to where they stood in the FedEx Cup points, and with Thomas, the points leader, coming to the first tee already at 10 under, who knows what ugliness could have transpired Thursday?
But instead Thomas shot a pedestrian even-par 70 and allowed all kinds of contenders to bunch up on both sides of him. If they were playing this one straight up, his raw score would have put Thomas in 16th place in this 30-man field. He hit just six of 14 fairways (a mortal sin when so much gnarly Bermuda awaits offline) and plunked a shot into East Lake on the par-3 15th even though it was playing only 150 yards and still finished tied for the lead at an adjusted 10 under.
Joining him there were Schauffele and Koepka. One back at 9 under was McIlroy.
Schauffele spearheaded the great scoreboard shuffle Thursday, shooting the day’s low round (64) and being rewarded, oddly enough, with the overall lead. What a concept. That regardless of the fact he began his round at 4 under, behind five players and a full six shots behind Thomas’ advantage.
Schauffele’s relationship with East Lake is so cozy they should co-star in a Hallmark movie. This place has been like a second womb to him. This was Schauffle’s ninth round at East Lake, his lowest yet and his eighth one in the 60s. His scoring average here is 67.44, nearly a stroke less than anybody who’s chasing him now.
He just likes everything about this place.
“My best guess would be, just the southern hospitality, East Lake, the staff to the tournament, just the style of this tournament being a limited field,” Schauffle said, when asked why he’s so comfortable here.
The Atlanta scene at Tour Championship time just seems to suit a San Diego dude. “It's pretty exclusive. It's very relaxed. For how important and how top-notch this tournament is, it's a very surprisingly relaxed week. You don't see a bunch of guys grinding on the range in 90 degrees. I just think I'm comfortable, and it sort of feeds into my sort of California vibe, surprisingly, just because it’s so laid back.”
His Thursday round was as smooth as a Beach Boys harmony. He and Bryson DeChambeau had the only bogey-free rounds of the day, only Schauffle put up a lot more birdies (six).
His most trying moment may have come on No. 16, when his tee shot landed uncomfortably close to the front lip of the fairway bunker. “I pulled (the shot), too, I’m not going to lie,” he said. And yet it hit about a foot from the hole and rolled 22 feet by. A two-putt par can be a thing of beauty.
Thomas complimented himself on how he dealt with the lead he was handed to begin this Tour Championship, adding, “I just didn't quite hit enough fairways.”
“Three days with a tie for the lead. I'm in a good spot,” he added.
Koepka overcame back-to-back bogeys on Nos. 9 and 10, shooting 3 under the rest of the way to sidle up into a share of the lead.
“After 10, it was full-panic mode, but I found something there,” Koepka said. “I was just trying to be too perfect.”
That was one of the few golf questions asked Koepka after his round. Most others dealt with the early release of his nude photo for the ESPN magazine body issue. (To which one of his responses was, “It was something I enjoyed. I was looking forward to it for months. It’s something I definitely don’t regret doing. It’s been enjoyable to see the pictures over the last couple of months and see, I guess, all the hard work I put into it and see the results.”)
As difficult as it is to transition from that, transition we must.
Back to winners and losers from Thursday, the two players of note who shot themselves out of any hope for the FedEx Cup were Dustin Johnson (73) and Webb Simpson (74).
With a steady, sturdy 66, McIlroy was in a lovely position, just one off the lead at an adjusted 9 under. And the 2016 FedEx Cup champ knew it: “To be right up there with three rounds to go, it's a great opportunity to, I guess, try to get my name on that FedEx Cup trophy again.”
Not the first time Schauffele and Thomas have bumped into each other on the leaderboard here. There was 2017, back when the FedEx Cup was decided by points and the Tour Championship the old-fashioned way by stroke total. Thomas won the Cup that year, but was denied a Tour Championship trophy as Schauffele won the tournament by a stroke. That turned out to be a great irritant to Thomas.
“It's just Thursday,” Schauffele said. Too early to bother anyone just yet, he added.
“I'd love to be a thorn in someone's side on Sunday.”
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