ATLANTA — Masters champion Scottie Scheffler is playing every bit like the No. 1 player in golf and was on the verge of turning the Tour Championship into a rout.
Three holes by Xander Schauffele changed everything going into the weekend at East Lake.
Schauffele holed a pair of birdie putts, and then drilled a 4-iron just over the bunker and right by the hole on the par-5 18th, rolling in a 5-foot eagle putt.
The birdie-birdie-eagle finish — Scheffler had to settle for pars — gave Schauffele a 7-under 63 as he went from a 6-shot deficit to 2 shots behind Friday.
Schauffele rarely gets overly excited, and this was no exception.
“It was nice to pick up some shots late here, but it’s just a positioning battle going into Sunday,” he said. “There’s a lot of golf to be played on this property.
Scheffler wasn’t overly concerned. He rarely is.
“I’m just going to go out there and do my thing and try and play good golf,” Scheffler said. “Xander obviously has a great track record around here, but paying attention to what other guys do on the golf course has never served me too well.”
Scheffler, who had a 66, was at 19 under par. He started at 10 under par as the No. 1 seed in the FedEx Cup — Schauffele started 4 shots behind as the No. 4 seed — and had few complaints except for not making every birdie chance, and they were ample.
Scheffler played bogey-free. The four putts from 10 feet or closer that he missed? He saw those only as opportunities, a reminder that he was playing the kind of golf that carried him to an amazing stretch of four wins in two months — capped by the Masters — in the spring.
Starting the day with a 5-shot lead, Scheffler made birdie from 5 feet on the par-3 second hole and then pounded driver on the next hole so perfectly that he had a flip wedge into 5 feet for another birdie. At that point, he was ahead by 8 shots.
Jon Rahm also had a 63 and worked his way closer to the top at 13 under. He was being interviewed when he looked up at a TV screen to see if Scheffler had made another birdie. He still was 6 shots behind. Defending champion Patrick Cantlay (66) and Sungjae Im (65) were 7 shots back.
Rahm wasn’t sure if he put himself back in the mix, but his 63 made it feel more reasonable.
“But he’s playing good golf, right? And we’re going to have to keep on going and play good golf, as well,” Rahm said. “It’s going to take a really strong weekend from me and hopefully not a strong one from Scottie. That’s kind of what we’re looking for.”
Schauffele seemed to find that at the end. He was 6 shots behind when he hit his approach to 12 feet behind a back left pin on the 16th and made the birdie. From the fairway on the 17th, his wedge spun back to 4 feet.
The 4-iron was bold and paid off.
“It was a little right of where I wanted, but it had the distance and the shape. I hit it really well, so I wasn’t very worried about it,” Schauffele said. “Just trying to make sure to cover that corner and I hit it solid, so I knew it was going to cover. For it to go to 5, 6 feet was definitely a bonus.”
Schauffele’s record around East Lake is astounding since he first arrived in 2017 as a PGA Tour rookie and won. The FedEx Cup was different that year, based on points that were reset for the final event of the year. Justin Thomas won the big bonus. When the tournament moved to the staggered start based on seedings, he had the low score over 72 holes when top-seeded Dustin Johnson won the FedEx Cup.
No matter the format, Schauffele has never shot worse than par in 22 rounds. He has only two rounds at 70, the other 20 in the 60s.
That’s not on his mind. Neither is the deficit he shrank to 4 shots over the final three holes.
“There’s a lot at stake here, and staying present is going to be the hardest thing,” he said.
At stake is the $18 million bonus and, for Schauffele, a chance to end the year with four PGA Tour titles. Scheffler wants to end the best year in golf with a fitting crown. Seven months ago, he still was looking for his first PGA Tour title.
The best score of the soft, sunny day belonged to Max Homa, who had a 62 and still was 10 shots behind.