ATLANTA — Masters champion Scottie Scheffler might have had a roller coaster of an opening round Thursday at the Tour Championship if only he had been paying attention to the scoreboards.
Scheffler started with a 2-shot lead as the No. 1 seed in the FedEx Cup. He led by as many as 6 shots on the front nine. Then his lead was down to 2. And when he finished with three straight birdies for a 5-under 65, he was 5 strokes ahead of Xander Schauffele.
“I didn’t know any of that,” he said. “I was just trying to go out and shoot a good number.”
Rory McIlroy‘s day at East Lake was far more wild. And he knew it.
A two-time FedEx Cup champion, McIlroy started 6 shots behind. He teed off in a downpour and hooked his tee shot over the fence and out of bounds. He reloaded and found a bunker. He missed a 6-foot putt and took triple bogey, and just like that was 9 shots behind.
And then he went rough-to-rough to make bogey on the next hole. McIlroy had only one par on the front nine and remarkably salvaged a 67.
“Not the best way to start,” McIlroy said. “The golf course is really gettable, so I knew there was a lot of holes out there that you could birdie. I knew my game was good. It was just one of those things. Not the ideal way to start, but proud of how I bounced back from that.”
Equally impressive was Open champion Cameron Smith, playing for the first time since the opening FedEx Cup playoffs event because of a hip injury that gets aggravated in soft conditions. East Lake wasn’t quite a real lake, but overnight rain and the downpour made for a good walk spoiled.
He still managed a 67 and joined McIlroy at 8 shots back. They were a curious attraction because McIlroy has been the biggest voice for the PGA Tour amid its battle with Saudi-funded LIV Golf, and reports indicate Smith will be the next to go.
Inside the ropes, it’s golf.
“Business as usual,” McIlroy said. “Cam and I get on really well — always have done. Again, I keep saying no matter what decisions are made or what choices are made by anyone, it doesn’t make them a bad person. Does it make me disagree with them? Of course it does. But I disagree with a lot of people that I like and love.”
And so began the final leg in the chase for the FedEx Cup and the $18 million prize. Scheffler has had the best year with his Masters victory among three wins against strong fields. He would love nothing more than to finish it off, and he played that way.
His 3-iron from 230 yards up the hill to 15 feet led to eagle on the sixth hole. He dropped only one shot, going from bunker over the green at the par-3 ninth and having to make an understated 10-foot putt to escape with bogey.
And then he had a big finish, capped off by going from the left rough over the water to 30 feet for a two-putt birdie to reach 15 under par (which accounts for his 10-under start).
U.S. Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick finished with an eagle for a bogey-free 64 and was 6 shots behind — he matched the best round of the soggy day and gained only a shot on Scheffler — while Joaquin Niemann (64) and defending champion Patrick Cantlay (70) were another shot behind.
Schauffele is dangerous as ever, and his record at East Lake is astounding for someone who has never left Atlanta in possession of a trophy. This was his 21st round in the Tour Championship, and his 19th round under par. The other two were even-par 70s.
He had the low 72-hole score in 2020 but started too far behind to catch Dustin Johnson.
“It’s a weird event,” Schauffele said. “We do this once a year, and it’s one of the bigger events for us to do it. Because of those things, you just have to try your best to stay in the present and not get ahead of it. Tuck your head and play your best golf.”
Weirder still was an injury that Scheffler mentioned from the weekend at The Open, where he went into Sunday in the mix and shot 74. He had never disclosed it and wasn’t entirely comfortable getting into the details except to say he was in pain.
“I had what’s called a pilonidal infection. It’s an infection at the top of your butt crack,” he said, trying not to crack a smile. “You can look it up. It was really hard for me to bend down. It was really hard for me to make a swing on Sunday. Walking was actually extremely difficult.
“Just one of those things that happened.”
All part of what already has been a remarkable year, and now is 54 holes away from becoming even more memorable.