ATLANTA – Scottie Scheffler started with a two-stroke lead in the staggered-start leaderboard at the Tour Championship. By day’s end, it had more than doubled to five strokes over Xander Schauffele.
Scheffler birdied the final three holes to shoot 5-under 65 at East Lake Golf Club and improved to 15 under after the opening round of the FedEx Cup finale.
“It’s a bit strange,” Scheffler said of starting the round at 10 under with a two-stroke lead. “That’s why I talk a lot about not looking at the leaderboards and stuff like that because if I try and go out and do my best and pretend like I’m trying to win a regular stroke-play event for four days, I think I’m going to be in a good position come Sunday afternoon, so that’s going to be my plan going forward.”
Scheffler made his first birdie of the day at the third hole and drilled a 3-iron from 230 yards at the par-5 sixth hole and poured in a 17-foot eagle putt. His lead grew to as many as six strokes at one point as Patrick Cantlay, the defending FedEx Cup champion and winner of last week’s BMW Championship, managed to only shoot even-par 70.
What would it mean to Scheffler to cap off his season with the FedEx Cup trophy on Sunday? “It would definitely be the icing on the cake for the year,” he said.
Xander Schauffele eats up East Lake again
Xander Schauffele walks off the 18th green during the first round of the TOUR Championship golf tournament. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports
Schauffele, who won the Tour Championship in 2017 and has never finished worse than T-7 in his previous five starts here, continued his stellar play at East Lake. He shot 66, a stroke better than his career scoring average at the course of 67.2 in 21 rounds. Schauffele is alone in second five strokes behind Scheffler and a stroke better than U.S. Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick.
For Schauffele, the key to his round was hitting 10 of 14 fairways on a day when overnight rain led to preferred lies in the fairway and rain during the round softened the course.
“I just really worried about hitting the fairway on every hole,” he said. “Sort of started off each hole as its own tournament and was just trying to put it in the fairway because once you have ball in hand, the greens are a little bit more receptive than normal and you have to be aggressive.”
Joaquin Niemann and Matt Fitzpatrick tie for low round of the day
Niemann may have finally figured out East Lake Golf Club.
The 23-year-old Chilean is making his third appearance at the Tour Championship. In his previous eight rounds at the playoff finale, Niemann had broken par just once. He’d finished T-27 in 2020 and 29th out of the 30-man field last year.
On Thursday, he started the tournament at 2 under in the staggered-start scoring and improved to 8 under by days end with a blistering 6-under 64, which tied for the low round of the day with Fitzpatrick. Niemann capped off his first round by draining a 19-foot eagle putt at the last.
“It was two great shots,” he said. “That putt was a bonus.”
Fitzpatrick was pleased with his 64.
“Bogey-free rounds are pretty much my favorite,” he said. “My game felt a lot better than it did last week. My coach flew in Monday after I told him to come on Sunday. So yeah, we got some good work in Tuesday and Wednesday and definitely felt comfortable out there today.”
Rory's weird day
Rory McIlroy walks to the 18th green during the first round of the TOUR Championship golf tournament. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports
Rory McIlroy experienced the weirdest round of his life on Thursday. The Northern Irishman’s opening tee shot sailed left out of bounds and he made a triple bogey. He made two more bogeys in his first five holes, yet recovered to make an eagle at six and eight birdies to shoot 3-under 67 at East Lake Golf Club.
After the eagle, McIlroy’s caddie Harry Diamond said to him, “Rory, that’s the weirdest six holes I’ve ever seen you play.”
In 773 rounds, McIlroy had never gone without making a par in the first seven holes of a Tour event. Fortunately, he sank a 6-foot par putt at the seventh.
McIlroy would go on to make just four pars during a roller-coaster round that added up to 67 and left him tied for sixth with Sungjae Im.
By day’s end as Diamond walked up 18, Golf Channel’s John Wood reported that he had updated his assessment: “Rory, that’s the weirdest 18 holes I’ve ever seen you play.”
McIlroy began the first round of the tournament at 4 under in the staggered-start scoring, but it didn’t take long for him to appear out of the tournament as he dropped back to even par.
“I got off to the worst start possible,” he said. “We got a little unfortunate that we teed off in that big downpour earlier in the day. I tried to guide sort of this little peeler into the fairway at the first and complete double-crossed, body stopped… there’s a lesson in there somewhere that even when you’re not sure about what you’re trying to do, sort of going full send for me is the best way forward.”
McIlroy was proud of the way he battled back, but he’ll start the second round trailing by eight strokes and needing help if he’s going to win the FedEx Cup for an unprecedented third time.
“I think tomorrow is a pretty pivotal day for the rest of the field just to try to get a little closer to where Scottie is,” McIlroy said.
Aaron Wise and his caddie Brian Dilley walk up to the 1st green during the first round of the TOUR Championship golf tournament. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports
Aaron Wise is playing with house money.
The 26-year-old Oregon Duck was the last man in to qualify for the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club on Sunday.
Wise declared East Lake his favorite golf course on the PGA Tour, and he proved why on Thursday, shooting a bogey-free 5-under 65.
Wise played on his own in the first group of the day due to Will Zalatoris withdrawing from the tournament with an injury, which meant there would be an odd number of players for twosomes.
“I don’t think I’ve ever played as a single in a tournament,” Wise said. “It was different. It was interesting to start. I felt a little weird starting off the round, but once I settled in there walking to three tee or so, felt pretty normal, honestly felt kind of nice because I could go at my own pace and do what I wanted.”
Entering the week at No. 30, Wise started the tournament at even, 10 strokes behind FedEx Cup leader Scheffler in the staggered-scoring start.
“It’s just one of those things where you almost put it out of your head and you just go try to shoot the best score you can. But yes, it’s weird walking up seven and I’m 1 under on the round, and I look up and it says 10 under is leading. I’m like, well, no one is 10 under, but I get it,” Wise said. “I’d have to play well here to have a chance. But who knows, today was a good start to that, so hopefully it keeps going that way.”
Last-place money this week is $500,000, but Wise’s 65 propelled him into a tie for 14th. There are still three more days to go before a FedEx Cup champion is crowned and someone goes home $18 million richer in first-prize bonus money. Wise’s plan is to keep chipping away at Scheffler’s lead and see how profitable a week it can be.