Patrick Cantlay picked up his last birdie when he was least expecting it Saturday in the Tour Championship, and it felt like it was worth more than just one extra shot.
Clinging to a one-shot lead over Jon Rahm, he went from the right rough to the first of two bunkers fronting the 18th green with the pin tucked behind the second one. Cantlay safely blasted out to 25 feet and made it for a 3-under 67 to lead by two.
“I thought it was big for momentum,” Cantlay said. “It was a nice putt to make, especially being out of position on that hole. And I’ll take that momentum into tomorrow.”
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It set the stage for a sprint to the FedEx Cup and its $15 million prize, with ramifications that could go even further. Still to be determined after the cash is doled out is PGA Tour player of the year, and Cantlay could be a big part of that conversation with a victory.
For now, he was at 20-under par with a two-shot lead over Rahm (68), and Cantlay knows he will have his hands full with a demanding East Lake course and the No. 1 player in the world, who hates losing as much as him.
The money is a nice talking point for Cantlay and Rahm, and even Justin Thomas, who had a 66 and is still very much in the range of making sure this isn’t a two-man race.
“I don’t play the game to make money,” Cantlay said. “I play the game because I want to win golf tournaments and I love doing that. And I’m in a great spot to do that tomorrow.”
So is Rahm, the U.S. Open champion who was denied what seemed to be a certain victory at the Memorial in early June when he had a six-shot lead and then had to withdraw with a positive COVID-19 test.
He was four shots behind with eight holes to play, made only one birdie and still made up ground when Cantlay — who had gone 46 holes with just one bogey — made three bogeys and missed a pair of birdie chances during the back nine before ending with his big birdie.
“It was one of those days where there was a lot of in-between numbers,” Rahm said. “There was a lot of three-quarters and finessing around, and certain holes I just played a little bit more conservative, and didn’t give myself the best chances to make putts.”
Thomas, who began the Tour Championship six shots behind because of his position in the FedEx Cup coming into the finale, was poised for the low round of the week to to get a little closer. But he pulled his tee shot on the par-5 18th, went rough-to-rough to 35 feet, and then three-putted for bogey by missing a 5-foot putt. He wound up five behind.
“I can’t bank on them having a bad day,” Thomas said. “I just have to keep plugging along and doing my job.”
No one else was closer than seven shots of Cantlay, who began the week at 10-under par after his BMW Championship victory made him the No. 1 seed.
Cantlay had reason to think Sunday might have involved a little less stress. He and Rahm had matching birdies from the greenside bunker on the par-5 sixth, and then the cool-headed Californian began to pull away.
Cantlay made a 12-foot birdie on No. 7. Rahm found a bunker off the tee at No. 8 and made bogey. Cantlay holed a 30-foot birdie across the green at the par-3 ninth, and then drilled his approach to 10 feet for another birdie on No. 10.
Just like that, he was four shots clear and not making any mistakes that would suggest he was going anywhere but forward.
Rahm didn’t panic.
“No, because listen, it could happen that he could keep up that play, but it’s very unlikely. I knew sooner or later, at some point, he was going to stop,” Rahm said.
“I never panicked because I knew I had my chances,” he said. “I was playing the back nine great all week and was full of confidence. Hopefully I’m the one that comes tomorrow with a solid game and puts on a lot of pressure.”
Rahm, who had made nine birdies on the back nine over the first two days, made only on on Saturday. No matter. Cantlay missed the green on the 11th for bogey, twice had to scramble for bogey on Nos. 14 and 16, and missed birdie chances of 10 feet and 8 feet, the length he had been making all day amid calls of “Patty Ice.”
And the last one was big.
“I thought I rolled the ball on the greens just as good as the last couple days, and my speed was good, and a few putts went in today, which was nice,” he said. “So I feel like I’m in a good spot going into tomorrow, and that putt on 18 put the momentum in the right direction.”