Patrick Cantlay has two-stroke Tour Championship lead and $15-million payoff in sight
It might not be a two-man race at East Lake anymore.
Cantlay’s final birdie allowed him to finish strong after a wobbly four-hole stretch that had winnowed his four-shot lead to one. He wound up with a three-under-par 67 and was at 20 under, leaving him one round away from the FedEx Cup.
“I thought it was big for momentum,” Cantlay said. “It was a nice putt to make, especially being out of position on that hole. And I’ll take that momentum into tomorrow.“
Rahm finished with five consecutive pars for a 68 and was still very much alive. He went from a four-shot deficit after the 10th hole to a one-shot deficit just five holes later.
It’s not easy to go low at East Lake, but it’s easy to lose ground. Cantlay, a former UCLA standout, did that with a pair of mistakes over the final hour.
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“Hopefully tomorrow, I can bring my ‘A’ game and give this guy in front of me a little bit of a run,” Rahm said.
Not to be overlooked was Justin Thomas, though he was agitated with his finish.
Thomas, who began the Tour Championship six strokes behind because of his position in the FedEx Cup standings coming into the finale, was poised for the low round of the week to to get a little closer. But he pulled his tee shot on the par-five 18th, went rough to rough to 35 feet, and then three-putted for bogey by missing a five-foot putt.
He was five behind.
“I can’t bank on them having a bad day,” Thomas said. “I just have to keep plugging along and doing my job.”
No one else was closer than seven shots of Cantlay, who began the week at 10 under par after his BMW Championship victory made him the No. 1 seed.
Cantlay had reason to believe Sunday might have involved a little less stress. He and Rahm had matching birdies from the greenside bunker on the par-five sixth, and then the cool-headed Californian began to pull away.
Cantlay made a 12-foot birdie on No. 7. Rahm found a bunker off the tee at No. 8 and made bogey. Cantlay holed a 30-foot birdie across the green at the par-three ninth and then drilled his approach to 10 feet for another birdie on No. 10.
Just like that, he was four strokes clear and not making any mistakes that would suggest he was going anywhere but forward.
But he missed the 11th green for bogey and then it became a real struggle down the stretch. Cantlay found trouble left of the fairway on No. 14 and had to scramble for bogey. He badly missed the 16th green with a wedge in his hand and again scrambled for bogey. In between, he missed birdie chances of 10 and eight feet, the length he had been making all day amid calls of “Patty Ice.”
And then on the 18th, Cantlay faced a tough bunker shot over another greenside bunker to a tight pin. He played smartly, as he has done all week, and left himself 25 feet for a birdie putt that put a happy finish on his round.
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Thomas was the only one of the dreamers to have real thoughts of winning, along with perhaps Kevin Na (66), who was seven shots behind.
Rory McIlroy took himself out of the picture with a 74. Jordan Spieth, who thrives at East Lake, wasted a good start with too many bogeys and then nothing but pars over the final eight holes for a 70. Harris English didn’t make birdie until the 17th hole and shot 75.
It looks like match play between Cantlay and Rahm, depending on how Thomas starts and whether he can stay close enough.
So much more is at stake than the $15-million prize for winning.
“I don’t play the game to make money,” Cantlay said. “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.”
Still to be determined after the season ends Sunday is PGA Tour player of the year. Rahm would seem to be a leading contender with his U.S. Open title and top finishes in the majors, along with British Open champion Collin Morikawa.
A victory for Cantlay would be his fourth of the season — no one else has more than two — and it would include the FedEx Cup.
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