Planet Golf — 02 September 2021 by GW staff and news services
Late birdie boosts Cantlay momentum

ATLANTA — Patrick Cantlay picked up his last birdie when he was least expecting it Saturday in the Tour Championship, and it felt like it was worth more than just one extra shot.

Clinging to a one-shot lead over Jon Rahm, he went from the right rough to the first of two bunkers fronting the 18th green with the pin tucked behind the second one. Cantlay safely blasted out to 25 feet and made it for a 3-under 67 to lead by two.

“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.”

It set the stage for a sprint to the FedEx Cup and its $15 million prize, with ramifications that could go even further. Still to be determined after the cash is doled out is PGA Tour player of the year, and Cantlay could be a big part of that conversation with a victory.

For now, he was at 20-under par with a two-shot lead over Rahm (68), and Cantlay knows he will have his hands full with a demanding East Lake course and the No. 1 player in the world, who hates losing as much as him.

The money is a nice talking point for Cantlay and Rahm, and even Justin Thomas, who had a 66 and is still very much in the range of making sure this isn’t a two-man race.

“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.”

So is Rahm, the U.S. Open champion who was denied what seemed to be a certain victory at the Memorial in early June when he had a six-shot lead and then had to withdraw with a positive COVID-19 test.

He was four shots behind with eight holes to play, made only one birdie and still made up ground when Cantlay — who had gone 46 holes with just one bogey — made three bogeys and missed a pair of birdie chances during the back nine before ending with his big birdie.

“It was one of those days where there was a lot of in-between numbers,” Rahm said. “There was a lot of three-quarters and finessing around, and certain holes I just played a little bit more conservative, and didn’t give myself the best chances to make putts.”

Thomas, who began the Tour Championship six shots behind because of his position in the FedEx Cup 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-5 18th, went rough-to-rough to 35 feet, and then three-putted for bogey by missing a 5-foot putt. He wound up 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 think Sunday might have involved a little less stress. He and Rahm had matching birdies from the greenside bunker on the par-5 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-3 ninth, and then drilled his approach to 10 feet for another birdie on No. 10.

Just like that, he was four shots clear and not making any mistakes that would suggest he was going anywhere but forward.

Rahm didn’t panic.

“No, because listen, it could happen that he could keep up that play, but it’s very unlikely. I knew sooner or later, at some point, he was going to stop,” Rahm said.

“I never panicked because I knew I had my chances,” he said. “I was playing the back nine great all week and was full of confidence. Hopefully I’m the one that comes tomorrow with a solid game and puts on a lot of pressure.”

Rahm, who had made nine birdies on the back nine over the first two days, made only on on Saturday. No matter. Cantlay missed the green on the 11th for bogey, twice had to scramble for bogey on Nos. 14 and 16, and missed birdie chances of 10 feet and 8 feet, the length he had been making all day amid calls of “Patty Ice.”

And the last one was big.

“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,” he said. “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.”

SECOND ROUND

ATLANTA – Less than a week into his new nickname, “Patty Ice” is playing to type.

He gave the best press conference early in the week, saying, among other things, that there is some truth to the nickname. And he has coolly, calmly refused to surrender the lead despite everything playing partner Jon Rahm could throw at him Friday.

“The two rounds were very similar,” Cantlay said after his 4-under 66, which got him to 17 under total, one ahead of world No. 1 Rahm (65). “Mostly mistake-free, both rounds, and I hit the ball pretty well, kept the ball in control, fat side mostly, and had really nice speed on the greens and just didn’t make very much.”

Well, not until 17 and 18, anyway. One week after setting a PGA TOUR record in Strokes Gained: Putting in his playoff win at the BMW Championship, Cantlay answered Rahm’s birdies on the last two holes with birdies of his own to keep the solo lead going into the weekend.

Although he ranks only 22nd in SG: Putting this week, Cantlay has done just enough.

“You definitely feed off the other player,” said Rahm, who began the week four back but has done nearly everything right to erase most of that deficit. “When you have somebody like him who played a round with very few mistakes, you could argue that it could have been a lot lower; it only motivates me to keep doing a little bit better.”

With the tournament’s relatively new (2019) Starting Strokes format, Cantlay’s lead at the outset – by two over Tony Finau, on down to 10 over a group of five players – was always going to be the big story. It was like a living, breathing thing.

How long would it last? Or would it last at all?

So far, it has.

The overarching theme to this TOUR Championship is that the front-runner has refused to do anything stupid to help the chase pack. He’s made them work, and, so far, at least, the only one who started close enough (four back) and played well enough is Rahm.

Bryson DeChambeau (67, 11 under) is the next closest player, but he’s six back.

Here was Patty Ice in action: Rahm birdied from 26 feet to tie for the lead at the 17th hole, but Cantlay promptly stepped up and converted from 15 feet to retake it.

Rahm nearly holed his bunker shot on 18, leaving himself a tap-in birdie to again tie for the lead, but after a so-so chip from behind the green, Cantlay holed from 8 feet to take it back by himself.

Somewhere, U.S. Ryder Cup Captain Steve Stricker was smiling.

Is any of this surprising? Yes and no. Front-running is notoriously difficult on the PGA TOUR; in 2019, for example, Justin Thomas was the top seed but wound up tied for third. Also, Cantlay’s best in three previous starts at East Lake was a T20.

But that was Cantlay; this is Patty Ice, who may be playing the best golf of his life.

FIRST ROUND

ATLANTA — Patrick Cantlay met his goal in the first round of the Tour Championship on Thursday, and it had nothing to do with the score on his card or the size of his lead.

As the top seed in the FedEx Cup, he started with a two-shot lead over Tony Finau before even hitting a shot. He finished the warm, breezy day at East Lake at 3-under 67 with a two-shot lead over Jon Rahm.

This was all about playing another tournament round.

“I think being in the spot that I’m in, it would be easy to get ahead of yourself and easy to maybe stray from your game plan because you feel like you’re ahead,” Cantlay said. “And that’s just not helpful, so I’m not going to do that.”

Only four players had a better score, so it was a good day regardless of the format that allows player to start at various points under par depending on their FedEx Cup position.

Rahm began by chipping in for birdie, kept the round from getting away from him with a few key saves — one for bogey, one for par — at the turn, and ran off four birdies over his last seven holes for a 65.

Cantlay, who started at 10-under par, moved to 13 under.

Five shots behind was Bryson DeChambeau and Harris English, and only one of them managed to pick up a little ground on Cantlay while delivering one of the more exciting moments.

That would be English, who was headed in the wrong direction when he stepped to the tee at the par-3 15th over water, the second-toughest hole at East Lake, smashed a 5-iron from 224 yards and watched it drop for a hole-in-one, the first one since the Tour Championship first came to East Lake in 1998.

He followed with two more birdies for a 66, one better than Cantlay on the day, a little closer than when English started.

DeChambeau birdied his last three holes to salvage a 69. He started three shots behind and now is five shots behind, without any reports of unruly behavior outside the ropes.

The subject of name calling was — who else? — English.

One fan following along kept referring to him by another name — Hudson Swafford — which is understandable. English and Swafford were teammates at Georgia, have similar builds, look a little alike. They’re even tied in driving distance (81st) on the PGA Tour.

“He thought I was Hudson like half the people out here,” English said. ”I think he kind of had a couple beers. … He just couldn’t quite tell from 50 yards out who I was.”

Finau, meanwhile, had a 72 and went from two shots behind to seven back.

This is the third year of the format, and Cantlay doesn’t know how the lower half feels. He was the No. 2 seed in 2019 when it started, the No. 1 seed last year. That first time didn’t go well. He had one of his worst weeks of the year, which cost him nearly $2 million with how far he fell.

Justin Thomas was the Nos. 1 and 3 seeds the previous two times. Now he’s at No. 6, meaning he started six shots out of the lead. That was a new experience.

He noticed he already was in 10th place by the time he teed off, based on some early scoring, and found that to a bit jarring. Worse yet was being 1 over on the front nine. Starting out six shots behind in the first place, his hopes could have ended early.

But he shot 31 on the back nine, five birdies and one impressive par save on the 14th, and pieced together a 67. He’s still six back. It could have been worse.

“When you start behind like that, unfortunately, you just don’t have the luxury of shooting a 1 over or 2 over the first round,” Thomas said. “And I salvaged a good round out there and feel like I can easily go out there and shoot 6 or 7 under one of these next three days. And hopefully I do.”

Rahm started four back and, like Cantlay, chose not to pay attention to anything but the next shot, even as the good start looked as though it could get away from him. He took bogey from the left rough on No. 7, had to get up-and-down from behind the eighth green for bogey and saved par from a bunker on the par-3 ninth.

That was as important as some of his birdies. Now he’s two behind Cantlay with 54 holes left, and now matter how odd it might seem at the start, now it feels like a regular tournament.

“It’s very easy to get caught up on how far back you start. I don’t think I really once thought about it out there. I was just trying to post a score,” Rahm said. “My job is to hit the best shot I can each time and that’s all can I control.”

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