ATLANTA—Despite an abundance of room at the East Lake range, what with the 30-player field bestowing ample space, Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas packed in like New York subway passengers toward the right side of the practice area on Friday. Their routines vary, as do their swings and trajectories and conversations with gathered team members, yet watching this trio bash balls into the oppressive heat produced a startling concert, pitches all tuned to the same frequency.
Then, on the far left of the range, Xander Schauffele worked by himself. He seemed oblivious—or perhaps ambivalent—to the proceedings at the other end, and the attention it drew from the crowd. In the moment the scene felt odd; seven hour laters, it proved a harbinger. After 36 holes at the Tour Championship, three of the sport’s heavyweights—Koepka, McIlroy and Thomas—are atop the leader board … as is Schauffele, golf’s big-game hunter.
After nine holes, that didn’t seem to be the case. Starting the day tied for the lead at 10 under, Schauffele’s birdie at the sixth was wiped out by back-to-back bogeys to close the front nine. Truth be told, the damage could have been worse; Schauffele was struggling with his tempo, at a loss for where his shots were headed. An 80-minute rain delay ostensibly didn’t extinguish that fire, as a poor tee shot at the par-3 11th gave the 25-year-old his third bogey in four holes. He was five back of Koepka and Thomas.
However, Schauffele said the storm provided a much-needed respite from his swing woes.
“Probably the first time I can say that I’m very stoked to have a delay,” he said after the round. “I came back out swinging it much better than I did on the front nine. It was a nice reset.”
Five pars followed to keep him in shouting distance, and he put a wedge from 115 yards to 15 feet at the 17th. He converted for just the second birdie of the day.
On the final hole, Schauffele’s 360-yard drive left him 230 into the par 5, albeit from the secondary cut. He somehow managed enough spin to keep it on the green, then dropped the remaining 25 feet for eagle. Schauffele was now just one back of the lead.
That advantage grew to two after Koepka birdied. Nevertheless, Schauffele battled from a looming ejection to stay in the mix.
“Yeah, it was an interesting one,” Schauffele said. “For how hard East Lake is, I gave myself a lot of good looks, uphill looks, and I didn’t make too many putts. It was a nice finish.”
The same could be said for McIlroy. Rory birdied the final two holes, bouncing back from an opening-hole bogey to turn in a three-under 67. The four at the final hole was particularly impressive. McIlroy sailed his shot so far right that he reloaded on the tee box, eventually finding his first at the side of a tree. Seeing a gap through the pine, McIlroy muscled a 5-iron cut just short of the green, getting up-and-down for bird.
“I got away with it. I got two good breaks,” McIlroy said. “I had the gap on the drive, and then I hit it up there and got a nice lie for my third and was able to chip it in, chip it up there close … So I got lucky, but I used my luck and took advantage of it.”
Call it home cooking, for while McIlroy comes from Northern Ireland and lives in Florida, he’s made East Lake his own, boasting a win, T-2 and two other top 10s in five starts.
Not needing any providence Friday was Koepka. Those ESPN images may have shown flesh, but on the course Koepka remains very much a cyborg.
Though his drives and approaches were slightly off, his short game was not, getting up-and-down in six-of-seven tries. The only real mistake was a missed eight-footer for eagle at the last—if you can call a birdie a “mistake”—matching McIlroy’s 67 for a 13-under total, one shot ahead of McIlroy and Thomas.
Unlike McIlroy and Schauffele, Koepka felt encumbered by the delay.
“It kind of killed any momentum I had,” Koepka said, who was three under before the horn blew. “I didn’t feel like I had any good golf shots after the rain delay, but that’s part of golf. Everybody’s got to deal with the same thing, just didn’t execute.”
Thomas joined Koepka in this hymn. “It would be hard for me to say that it didn’t kind of stop my momentum because I was playing really flawlessly, I felt like, that front nine,” Thomas said. “I didn’t play that poorly on the front nine, just had—you know, the course was playing a little different after that delay.”
Thomas made the turn in three under, but didn’t make a birdie on the second nine, and a flyer out of the sand at the 17th led to a bogey. But there’s hard to find much fault in his Friday trek, hitting 14 greens and posting a 2.46 strokes gained/putting figure on the afternoon. His two-under 68 leaves him tied with McIlroy, one back of Brooks.
It’s a billing the tour desperately craves for a Tiger-less event. The World No. 1 and reigning—and likely repeating—Player of the Year, pitted against two of the more dynamic and popular players in the game. Only Paul Casey (nine under) and Patrick Cantlay (seven) warrant mentioning, although mostly in an “honorable mention” fashion. You couldn’t plan a better season-finale soiree.
Except, if anyone is built to crash this barbecue, it’s Schauffele. East Lake is a no-frills place, which fits Schauffele’s well-rounded game, evidenced by capturing the Tour Championship in 2017 and finishing T-7 last year. He’s won twice this season, and his major résumé is eerily similar to pre-Erin Hills Koepka, with five top-six finishes in 11 starts.
And like Brooks, Schauffele’s disposition is as steady as stone.
“I’ll keep my same mentality,” Schauffele. “I’ll keep my head down. I saw a few more leaderboards today than I did yesterday. I’ll keep my head down and try to have a look maybe back nine tomorrow and starting off on Sunday. Maybe we can try to get ourselves in good position for that.”
Get in position and keep your head down. Makes sense. That’s what big-game hunters do, after all.