Koepka, Thomas, Schauffele tied for lead at TOUR Championship
ATLANTA – There was a fear before the TOUR Championship debuted its new format that the FedExCup leader could run away with the tournament and create a weekend devoid of drama.
That wasn’t the case Thursday at East Lake Golf Club, though. The two-shot advantage that Justin Thomas held when he stepped on the first tee was gone by the 13th tee. After struggling to find fairways and hitting an iron into the water, Thomas finds himself in a three-way tie for the lead with 54 holes remaining.
The leading trio features some of the TOUR’s most successful players over the past two years. They’ve combined to win a FedExCup (Thomas), Rookie of the Year (Xander Schauffele) and two Player of the Year awards (Brooks Koepka, Thomas). Koepka also is the hands-down favorite to win this year’s Player of the Year trophy. All three co-leaders were among the eight automatic qualifiers for this year’s U.S. Presidents Cup team, as well.
RELATED: Tee times | How new format works | JT switched driver shafts after last week’s win
The leaders sit at 10 under par, one shot ahead of 2016 FedExCup champion Rory McIlroy. Patrick Cantlay and Georgia Tech alum Matt Kuchar are another shot back. Cantlay started the day in second place, while McIlroy and Kuchar both shot 66.
Entering Thursday, there were just five players within five shots of the lead. There are now 12.
Schauffele made the biggest move. His 64 was the low round of the day by two strokes. Schauffele won at East Lake two years ago to clinch the Rookie of the Year award, then finished seventh the following year. He’s been under par in eight of his nine rounds at East Lake. The exception was an even-par 70.
“For how important and how top-notch this tournament is, it’s a very surprisingly relaxed week. You don’t see a bunch of guys grinding on the range in 90 degrees,” Schauffele said. “I just think I’m comfortable, and it sort of feeds into my sort of California vibe surprisingly, just because it’s so laid back.”
Schauffele won twice this year, at the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions and Sentry Tournament of Champions. He’s shown a propensity for performing well at the game’s biggest events – he had two top-3s in majors this year – and now is trying to win his first FedExCup.
Thomas won the season-long title when Schauffele was victorious at the TOUR Championship. Thomas won eight times in the preceding two seasons, but last week’s win at the BMW Championship was the first win of his injury-interrupted 2019 season. He left Medinah discontent with his driver, and that feeling continued Thursday.
He hit less than half his fairways during his first-round 70.
“It was very, very close out there, but I definitely — that being said, that’s golf, and I just needed to hit the fairways,” Thomas said.
His most penal shot was with an iron, though. He hit his tee shot into the water at the 150-yard, par-3 15th. Only three players missed that green Thursday, and he was the only player to hit it in the water.
Thomas preceded his first round last week with what he coined the “worst warm-up I’ve ever had.” Koepka is hoping he can win this week after a frustrating range session.
Like Thomas two years ago, Brooks Koepka is trying to wrap up a Player of the Year campaign with a victory in the FedExCup. Koepka already has three wins this season, including a major (PGA Championship) and World Golf Championship (FedEx St. Jude Invitational).
Koepka was “freaking out a little bit” while trying to find his game on the range Tuesday.
“I never felt that uncomfortable over the putter or just hitting the ball,” Koepka said.
He described it as “full panic mode” after he made the turn Thursday and hit his tee shot well right of the fairway.
“I felt like the train was off the tracks there on 9 and 10,” he said. “I hit that ball on 10, 75 yards right. It started 70 right and cut 5, so that wasn’t very good.”
He regrouped to birdie three of the final four holes, though, and will join Schauffele in the final group.
“It’s funny about this game. When it’s going really well, you’re never thinking. And then all of a sudden, everything kind of abandons you, and you’re trying to figure out, what’s the answer? What’s the answer? How do I right the ship? How do I figure it out? And you start looking at ten different things, and odds are it’s one simple thing,” Koepka said.
The task ahead is straightforward, as well. Now that one round is in the books, there’s no more talk about starting positions or strokes. Fifty-four holes remain and the leaderboard is all that matters. See More: