FedExCup: Justin Thomas reeled in as Rory McIlroy closes in
By Keith Jackson
Last Updated: 23/08/19 3:04pm
Justin Thomas lost control of the FedExCup as Xander Schauffele, Brooks Koepka and Rory McIlroy made significant moves in the first round at East Lake.
Thomas began the PGA Tour's season finale on 10-under par as the overall leader in the FedExCup standings after the first two events, but a ragged performance from tee-to-green saw his two-stroke advantage over the field wiped out.
A birdie at the last salvaged a level-par 70 which was enough to retain a share of the lead with Schauffele and Koepka, while a confident 66 from McIlroy left him just one stroke behind in the race for a $15m payday on Sunday evening.
Schauffele, the winner in Atlanta two years ago, was one of only two players in the elite 30-man field to keep a blemish off his card on the opening day as he carded six birdies in his best-of-the-day 64 which propelled him into the clubhouse lead on 10 under.
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Three birdies in four holes from the third got Schauffele off to the start he craved, and he picked up further shots at 10 and 11 before another at 14 lifted him to the top of the leaderboard, although he missed a great chance for another from inside six feet at the last.
Schauffele soon had company in the clubhouse lead when Koepka produced a grandstand finish, the world No 1 making three birdies over the last four holes as he peppered the pins at 15 and 16 before holing from 12 feet on the final green to return a 67.
Thomas made an encouraging start when he rattled in a 25-footer for birdie at the second, but he was far from matching the imperious long-game that swept him to a three-shot win on 25-under par at last week's BMW Championship.
The 2017 FedExCup champion dug deep to stay in red numbers and regained the outright lead with his third birdie of the round at the 14th, but a poorly-struck wedge to the 15th came up short and right and landed in the water hazard - a mistake which led to a double-bogey five.
Thomas scrambled a par at 16 and then lipped out from three feet for birdie on the 17th, but he ended a difficult day on a positive note when he safely two-putted from the fringe for a closing birdie which made it a three-way tie at the top, with McIlroy on his own on nine-under par.
McIlroy birdied the fourth and sixth either side of his only bogey of the day, and he followed six consecutive pars with three more gains over the next five holes before a bizarre finish to his 66, when he raced a six-foot birdie putt almost the same distance past the cup and managed to hole the return.
Patrick Cantlay, who began the tournament as Thomas' closest challenger, got to 10 under before mistakes at 14 and 16 dropped him back into a share of fifth with Matt Kuchar (66), while Hideki Matsuyama and Paul Casey also fired 66s to break into the top 10 with Jon Rahm (68) and Patrick Reed (70).