Dustin Johnson and Jon Rahm engaged in a game of whatever you can do, I can do better.
The World Nos. 1 and 2 entered the opening round of the Tour Championship in first and second place based on its staggered scoring, and Rahm, despite spotting Johnson two strokes, was able to catch him by shooting 5-under 65 on Friday at East Lake Golf Club.
Rahm, who started at 8 under, and Johnson, who started in the pole position at 10 under, finished at 13 under par, two strokes ahead of Justin Thomas.
Just five days after Johnson canned a 47-foot snaking birdie putt on the 72nd hole to force a playoff with Rahm at the BMW Championship only to have Rahm make an even more miraculous 66-foot birdie putt to win in sudden death, these two heavyweights put on an encore performance. Every time Rahm delivered a right cross, Johnson responding with an uppercut as they traded birdies on the same hole five times.
“The only birdie we didn’t share was mine on 16,” Rahm said. “Besides that we birdied every single hole together, which is kind of unique, right?”
Rahm hit just three fairways, but his putter bailed him out. He holed 128 feet of putts and ranked second in the field in Strokes Gained: Putting (+2.607).
“I’ve putted as good as I’ve ever putted on Bermuda greens in my life,” he said.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) September 4, 2020
Rahm got into red figures for the day early with a 19-foot birdie putt at the second, but Johnson knocked in a 7-footer to maintain his 2-shot lead. One hole later, Rahm made his only bogey of the day. Both Rahm and Johnson made tap-in birdies at the par-5 sixth hole before Johnson hit a bad patch, bogeying Nos. 8 and 9 to trim his lead to one stroke.
The back-and-forth affair heated up on the second nine when Rahm drained a 30-foot birdie and Johnson stepped up and canned a 28-footer to improve to 11 under. Then Rahm drilled a 13-foot birdie putt at 13 and Johnson walked in a 10 footer. Two ho-hum pars at the 14th, but the birdie barrage wasn’t done yet: Rahm rolled in a 24-foot putt at 15 and Johnson answered again, this time from 17 feet.
“Props to him to be making them on top of me,” Rahm said.
But at 16, Johnson finally blinked and missed after Rahm buried a 17-foot birdie putt to tie. Johnson lipped out a 6-foot birdie putt at 18 that would’ve given him the outright lead, but he was hardly deflated and having never before won the FedEx Cup, he remained focused on the task at hand.
“If I want to win this week I’m going to have to bring my best,” Johnson said.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) September 4, 2020
And yet while Rahm and Johnson did their best to make this a two-man race, the other competitors for FedEx Cup riches are lining up behind them. Thomas birdied three of his four holes and closed with birdie to shoot 66.
“I tried not to look at leaderboards today,” Thomas said. “I just tried to play golf and get in my own little world and not really worry about what was going on and what those guys were doing or what the guys in front of me were doing.”
McIlroy, whose wife, Erica, gave birth on Monday, posted 6-under 64, tying his career low round at East Lake, and showed no rust despite being otherwise preoccupied with his newborn daughter for most of the pre-tournament week.
“It just shows you golf is such a mental game, and if you come in with low expectations, that’s always how I’ve played well,” he said. “Whether I don’t feel like my game is in a good place or I’m not the favorite coming into a tournament, all that stuff, I feel like that’s when I usually play my best and I can play with a bit of freedom, and that’s what I did today.”
The defending champion birdied the last three holes and surged into contention at 9-under par, just four strokes behind the co-leaders. McIlroy is alone in fourth, making for nice symmetry as the top four in the world also rank as the top four on the leaderboard.
Mexico’s Abraham Ancer tied McIlroy for the low round of the day, and recorded the only bogey-free round. He improved to solo fifth place with a 64 that included the only eagle of the day at 18. Ancer, who began the tournament nine strokes behind Johnson at 1 under, took a very sensible approach to the staggered scoring system.
“I just picture myself like if this was a five-day event and I shot 1-under yesterday,” he said. “I just have to make up some ground.”
There’s three more days to go in the FedEx Cup, but the race to the finish line is on.
“If they were on the highway, it’s like the guy who’s running up against your bumper and you tap your brakes to back him off,” PGA Tour Radio analyst Mark McCumber said. “DJ’s got to accelerate to get away from Rahm. Tapping his brakes isn’t going to help.”
Can Rahm continue to hole boatloads of putts or will the wayward drives plague him? All he knows is that Day One felt like a continuation of his Sunday duel with Johnson on the Southside of Chicago and golf fans would like nothing more than to see the world’s top two players continue to trade haymakers – and birdies.
“I kind of stole that tournament last week from him and he started with a two-shot lead, so hopefully I can steal this one, as well,” Rahm said.
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