ATLANTA—After Justin Thomas missed his five-foot par putt on the 18th hole, slipping from 16 under to 15 under, he fielded questions from the media stoically, with just a hint of irritation. As he stood in front of the microphone, a hanging TV showed Patrick Cantlay hitting a 23-footer on the 18th green to finish the day at 20 under, two shots clear of Jon Rahm and five ahead of Thomas. In a way, it was a two-shot swing, just with players in different groups; Thomas could have been as close as three shots, and now the hill he had to climb on Sunday had become much higher. He fielded the last few questions, walked away, and before he had left the stage, the anger bubbled over and he shouted a pair of expletives at no one in particular.
That’s how badly he wants to win his second Tour Championship, a feat thus far accomplished only by Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy. It’s also a sign of how difficult he knows it will be, because standing in front of him are the world’s no. 1 golfer and the man who might be the hottest player on the planet.
“I gained some shots on the leaders today, and that’s what’s most important,” Thomas said. “I think I was four back going into Sunday at the Players, or maybe a little bit closer … but I know I’ve won from four behind before, so hopefully Pat will par 18 for me and not do anything crazy.”
Pat didn’t par 18, and Thomas, along with Kevin Na at 13 under, will likely have to post phenomenal scores just to have a chance. Rahm stands at 18 under, but his score at the Tour Championship is 12 under through three days, the best performance by a shot over Thomas and Na. With a 68, Rahm couldn’t match his two opening 65s on Saturday, but a steady round highlighted by a 26-foot birdie putt on 13 kept him close to Cantlay for what seems to be shaping up as yet another Sunday duel.
“Great off the tee, I must say,” Rahm said, analyzing his round. “Just wasn’t as sharp as I wanted to be with my irons. … I think a key moment was me making that putt on 13, me making the putt and feel like I stole one and [Cantlay] missing the tee shot on 14, that’s where things got a little bit closer. I never panicked because I knew I had my chances.”
Rahm knows he has to apply pressure early tomorrow, because Cantlay has threatened to run away with the tournament all week. (It’s also a chance for Rahm to get the bad taste of The Northern Trust out of his mouth, where he faded against Tony Finau.)
Cantlay began at 10 under, two ahead of his nearest challengers, and he hasn’t lost any of the momentum from last week’s dramatic victory at Caves Valley, where he fought Bryson DeChambeau through a long playoff before sinking the winning birdie on the sixth hole. His year has resembled a video game at times, with Cantlay facing successively strong opponents, from Thomas to Collin Morikawa to DeChambeau, and Sunday at the Tour Championship will present his greatest challenge yet against the world’s best golfer. Strangely enough, that might be bad news for Rahm—when Cantlay has an opponent in his sights under pressure this season, he simply hasn’t lost.
On Saturday, he found scorching form at the close of the front nine, culminating with a 29-footer on nine to reach 20 under. From there, as Rahm predicted, he cooled off, alternating birdies and bogeys for the rest of his round right to the very end, when his final 23-footer on the last brought him back to 20 under, two shots clear of Rahm.
“I thought it was big for momentum,” he said of his final birdie. “It was a nice putt to make, especially being out of position on that hole. 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.”
Both players thrive on the energy of a one-on-one duel, and while the Tour Championship hasn’t quite reached that stage, it’s very close, and it would take something extraordinary for anyone to crash what looks like a two-man party on Sunday. When asked if they had spent much time talking with each other over the last two days, Rahm laughed.
“Well, we are not on a date,” he said. “It’s an intense moment and we want to do our best and we get a little quiet. …I couldn’t tell you anything in the last few days that I didn’t know already.”
A week ago, it would have been far-fetched to think that anything could top the conclusion at Caves Valley, but the Tour Championship and its $15 million prize seem to hinge on one final mano-a-mano clash, and you’d be hard-pressed to find two combatants more eager for the fight.