Let’s get crass for a moment. Now that the Tour Championship clearly has devolved into a three-man show with one day left, it might be worth noting that beyond the title, the nifty replica Calamity Jane putter and the fleeting respect of their peers, Patrick Cantlay, Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas will be playing Sunday for the honor of gorging first at a steaming trough of money.
The winner Sunday takes $15 million. The runner-up takes $5 million, the kind of pay that would make even Vince Lombardi embrace second place.
Third place, $4 million. Why even bother?
So, do the math: There is a $10/$11 million difference at stake at East Lake on Sunday, which for most people who don’t have NetJets on their phone contact list or a closet full of free golf shirts would tend to make breathing optional.
Cantlay, who at a cumulative 20 under enjoys a two-shot lead over Rahm and a five-shot bulge over Thomas, has an answer for a financial pressure unlike any other out here on the fruited plains of pro golf.
“The internal drive to win golf tournaments is really what drives me, and so the external factors are not as much of a factor for me,” he said with a very straight face, which to the public eye is the only face he owns.
“I’m going to feel similar to how I feel most any Sunday when I’m coming down the stretch for a golf tournament because my drive to win is strong inside me,” Cantlay insisted. “And so, the other stuff is just a consequence of that, and I don’t play the game to make money. I play the game because I want to win golf tournaments and I love doing that, and I’m in a great spot to do that tomorrow.”
As he has all week, Cantlay maintained the advantage granted him by the staggered scoring system of this playoff finale as the current FedEx Cup points leader. It wasn’t as easy as he made it appear in the first two rounds, suffering three bogeys on the back nine Saturday after going bogey free the previous 41 holes. But once more, his trusty blade lifted him up, as he made a 23-footer for birdie on 18 to finish with a 3-under 67 and to re-inflate his lead over Rahm to two shots. Something to note for Sunday: Cantlay has birdied both of East Lake’s two par 5s every day thus far.
“I thought (that last putt) was big for momentum,” Cantlay said. “And I’ll take that momentum into tomorrow. I thought I rolled the ball on the greens just as good as the last couple days, and my speed was good, and a few putts went in today which was nice. So I feel like I’m in a good spot going into tomorrow, and that putt on 18 put the momentum in the right direction.”
Right there with him, step for step, is Rahm. He even momentary shared a piece of the lead when he went to school on a rare missed Cantlay putt and canned a 17-footer for birdie on the third hole. But back-to-back birdies for Cantlay at Nos. 6 and 7 along with a Rahm bogey on the difficult and water-lined par 4 eighth, gave Cantlay back a more comfortable edge. Rahm settled for a 68 on Saturday, which compared unfavorably with the 65-65 he shot coming into the weekend.
But was he ever worried? Nah. “I never panicked because I knew I had my chances,” Rahm said. “I was playing the back nine great all week and was full of confidence (he’s played the back side in 9 under through three rounds). Hopefully I’m the one that comes tomorrow with a solid game and puts on a lot of pressure.”
To round out an elite roster of golfing gold diggers – three of the world’s top six ranked players are atop this leaderboard – is Thomas, whose 65 tied for the low round of the day and could have been better if not for a 3-putt bogey on 18 that irked him to his core.
He’s at 15 under for the Tour Championship, and at five back of Cantlay the only other player in this select field within seven strokes of the lead. The top three are like Emerson, Lake and Palmer here, and everyone else is just singing in the shower.
Perhaps it’s the pedigree of the leaders that will allow them to discount the fortune to be made Sunday. Perhaps they really are wired differently than all those on the other side of the green ropes. Or, maybe they just don’t want to sound crass.
Said Thomas, “I mean, obviously the money’s great and I would rather have it than not have it. But to me, to say that I won the FedEx Cup and won the tournament is plenty for me. Maybe it’s because I’ve been fortunate enough to play well and make a lot already to where I don’t feel like I need to think about it. I don’t know, it’s just the way that I’m driven and motivated.”
Regardless, whichever of the three cash in big Sunday – OK, they all will, but one bigger than the rest – he likely won’t embrace the title and refuse the deposit.
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