ATLANTA—If you picture Patrick Cantlay’s season as a classic video game, in which he climbs the levels one after the other and faces a fearsome boss at the end of each one, then the Tour Championship represents the grand finale of his quest.
He chased down Justin Thomas with a brilliant Sunday at the Zozo Championship last fall, he bested Collin Morikawa at the Memorial, he outdueled Bryson DeChambeau in a thrilling playoff last week at Caves Valley, and now, after two rounds at the Tour Championship, he looks to be squaring up for a fight against the No. 1 player in the world, Jon Rahm. That’s the big boss, the final level, and maybe his greatest challenge yet.
Following a 66 on Friday, Cantlay holds a one-shot lead over Rahm (65) heading into the weekend. Rahm has actually posted a better score through two rounds, but Cantlay had the advantage of starting at 10 under as the top-ranked player in the FedEx Cup Playoffs. So far, he’s done just enough to stay ahead of his Spanish challenger, and after them, the nearest competition, Bryson DeChambeau, sits six shots adrift. We’re not quite in “two-horse race” territory yet, but we’re awfully close, and considering the form the two leaders are in, it’s hard to imagine both of them coming back to the field.
Unlike last week’s shooting gallery at the BMW, Cantlay has found himself playing a more patient, defensive style at East Lake.
“You don’t ever really want to press because it’s that classic golf course where you don’t want to short-side yourself,” Cantlay said. “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 … everything that I’m telling myself is just to stay totally present and shoot the lowest score I can every day and not get ahead of myself. “
As for Rahm, who shot a 65 for the second straight day and would be leading the tournament by three strokes by regular scoring, he continues to show the form that has yielded him 14 top-10 finishes this season—more, by far, than any other player. After a pedestrian first 12 holes, consisting of one birdie and 11 pars, Rahm went on a closing tear, making birdie on five of the last seven. Aside from a tap-in on the final hole, none of the birdie putts were shorter than nine feet.
Afterward, Rahm highlighted the scrambling that kept him alive before the birdie rush.
“I was just able to make some great saves for par,” he said. “I made a great save for bogey on 14, a great up-and-down as well at 15. And great chip-in technically on 13. So essentially played four good holes and I made four birdies. So, I think that’s the key and that’s been the key all week. I’ve been able to get a lot of good up-and-downs, and avoiding those mistakes is what allows me to keep going.”
Justin Thomas remains the club-twirl king
At 10 under affer back-to-back 67s, Thomas is high up in the chase pack, though he’ll still need at least one brilliant round to have a chance at the $15 million first prize. Until then, he can take solace in knowing that his emergence as the greatest club-twirler on the PGA Tour remains unchallenged after this masterful spin following a 246-yard second shot on the par-5 6th, setting up eagle:
Shocker of the day: DeChambeau had a rules issue
I’m not sure anyone fully understands this, so bear with me: DeChambeau launched his tee shot on No. 14 far into the woods on the right, which looked to the naked eye like it was out-of-bounds. However, there was a fence between the fairway and the out-of-bounds line, and the fence was an “immovable obstruction,” so there was technically no way to tell whether his ball was actually out-of-bounds since nobody was obliged to surmount the fence to check … even though the ball could have been OB. As you might imagine, the fans were thrilled to the max.
Rules official John Mutch was there to determine that DeChambeau could take a penalty-free drop away from the fence, and although Bryson crafted a great shot onto the front of the green, he ended up three-putting for bogey.
In the end, we can safely reach three conclusions. One, it was the right call. Two, none of this really makes sense. Three, it is absolutely no surprise that it happened to Bryson DeChambeau.
The second major letdown of Collin Morikawa
“I thought I was grinding, and that’s what I didn’t have after the PGA win. I wasn’t grinding as much because I just kind of had standards that I thought I would start playing better just because I won a major and that doesn’t happen like that.”
As you might imagine, it was Collin Morikawa, speaking before the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational in Memphis, detailing his ambitions to avoid the slump he experienced after winning his first major title at the PGA Championship.
We’re now six weeks past his second major win, at the Open Championship, and it’s not going so great. He’s grinding, but beyond a T-4 at the Olympics, just outside a medal finish, Morikawa seemingly is battling through another letdown. A T-26 in Memphis gave way to a missed cut at The Northern Trust, followed by a T-63 (out of 70) at the BMW. This week, after a field-worst 73 on Friday, he sits in 25th place out of 30 golfers. Considering the fact that he started the playoffs in first place, that’s a precipitous drop, and judging by Morkiawa’s quick exit on Friday, the frustration is starting to show. (And let’s not even talk money; the difference between first and 25th is a cool $14.5 million.)
Clearly, this is bad news on a number of fronts. Morkawa wanted to finish the season strong and put himself in contention for the top prize. That’s out the window. Psychologically, he’s close to having to recognize that a dreaded slump has returned. And it’s not great news for Whistling Straits, either. Morikawa will be just fine, but this isn’t how he saw his season ending.
The POTY race is wide open
Nobody seems to have any idea who will win the tour’s player of the year award, and the first two days of the Tour Championship haven’t brought much clarity. Rahm is probably the best player, but he’s only won a single event (a major, to be fair) and may need to win here to secure his spot.
Morikawa might have had the edge a month ago, but he’s faded out of the contention. Mickelson and Matsuyama, the other major winners, aren’t in the discussion, which leaves the door open to a player like Cantlay, who could secure his third win of the season and fifth in his career. There’s not an ironclad argument for anyone, and there might not be on Sunday, either.
“Yeah, it’s pretty packed,” Rory McIlroy said, “but you just got to go by the wins and the importance of the wins, I guess is probably the big thing. … It’s probably going to come down to this last week to see how it all pans out, but I think I have a pretty good idea of who I would vote for.”
At least one person is getting close to certainty … for the rest of us, the whole issue yields nothing but a giant shrugging emoji.