Kyle Stanley fired a six-under 64 to take a two-shot lead into the second round of the Tour Championship, topping the likes of Paul Casey and Brooks Koepka.
Stanley had a lot to digest when he picked up his second PGA Tour victory earlier this season at the Quicken Loans National, a mixed career of soaring highs and tough lows all merged at the scene of his emotional playoff victory over Charles Howell III.
Making eight of nine cuts at the start of the season the Washington native has trailed off in form ahead of the FedExCup playoffs, missing cuts at the Open and PGA championship and only finishing inside the top-25 twice since his win at TPC Potomac.
The American now finds himself in a surprising predicament, leading the Tour championships and chasing down a $10 million bonus, three shots ahead of FedExCup leader Jordan Spieth.
Stanley was aggressive from the start and made four quick birdies in a row after draining a birdie from three-foot on the par-4 third hole. He added three more on the back-nine along with one dropped shot, to card an opening round of 64.
He hit 80% of greens and fairways whilst leading total strokes gained, seeing him move up 20 spaces to second in the FedEx rankings after an impressive first round at East Lake.
Telling Golf Channel: “Obviously I’m happy with the round today.”
I’ve been in a pretty good place on the golf course, off the golf course. Ball-striking’s been pretty solid all year. Overall not a whole lot of weaknesses in the game.
A host of big names sit on 3-under, Justin Thomas, Russell Henley and Jon Rahm, all after shooting rounds of 67 and lead by FedExCup leader Jordan Spieth.
Whilst Spieth drove poorly off the tee, only hitting 60% of fairways, he battled back well keeping the blemishes to a minimum, only bogeying the par-3 second hole.
The world number two started his fightback by taking advantage of the easiest hole on the course, the par-4 sixth, scripting three brides in a row and adding his fourth of the day at the third toughest hole, dogleg left par-4 17th.
Both Spieth and Thomas can still play their way to a playoff victory and secure the $10 million prize but in order to do so must tighten up loose parts of their game.
A five-time winner on tour Justin Thomas has the tools to get the job done around East Lake but with three dropped shots on his card it was a messy round for the 2017 PGA champion.
Still, Thomas made six birdies to take back control and both Americans signed for rounds of 67 to tie for sixth place, three strokes behind the leader.
Thomas proved that by playing strong off the tee and finding the fairway it really opens up the course and the scoring only becomes tough when finding the Bermuda rough and missing greens; the American missed two greens on route to bogies on 9 and 11 as well as the fairway on No. 17.
Jordan Spieth would be just the second player besides Tiger Woods to win two FedEx Cups should he be triumphant at East Lake in 2017.
“I’m surprised we’re at 3 under,” Spieth said.
I felt like it was really a grind out there. It’s because the first four or five holes of the round I was all over the place tee to green. Then my whole back nine, I had a chance to birdie all but one of the holes, and I only made one of them.
On a quiet spell since his maiden major title at Erin Hills, Brooks Koepka has made all six cuts since the U.S. Open, including a T6 at The Open, and started this week with a blemish-free round, recording four birdies.
Partnered with the big-hitting American, for the first two days, is Paul Casey who followed Koepka’s example and also signed for a round of 4-under. The Englishman went low on the toughest hole on the course, par-4 first, before adding another five birdies to the tally and two dropped shots.
Daniel Berger is also just two shots off Kyle Stanley, closing his first round out in style, with an eagle on the eighteenth hole.
Russell Henley raced his par-putt on the first two foot past the hole to drop his first shot of the tournament and continued to go to three-over through seven holes. Then East Lake responded, the Shell Houston Open champion showed his putting prowess and was six-under through eight, to sit three back in a tie for sixth.
After four birdies in-a-row whilst making the turn, Jason Day found water on his approach to the par-5 eighteen green, a final-hole bogey dropped him to five off the pace.
Jon Rahm and Dustin Johnson still can both win the FedEx Cup with a victory in Atlanta, but they must grind it out and put pressure on Spieth and Thomas over the rest of the tournament.
Hideki Matsuyama had a six-over front-nine to finish a disastrous 5-over to end his challenge of the FedExCup on an opening day.
Last weeks winner in Boston at the BMW championships, Marc Leishman, suffered an opening round one-over-par, including a double-bogey six on the 440-yard thirteenth hole.
Stanley can win the FedExCup should he win the Tour Championship and a number of unusual circumstances happen, as Golf Channel points out:
- Spieth finishes T-18 or worse
- Thomas finishes T-6 or worse
- DJ finishes T-3 or worse
- Leishman finishes in 3-way tie for 2nd or worse
- Rahm finishes in 3-way tie for 2nd or worse
- Fowler finishes T-2 or worse
In theory, anyone from the 30-man field can win the $10m (£7.4m) prize on offer, but only those in the top five in the standings are in with a shout by triumphing around East Lake.
“It’s hard to put into words. It means a lot to me.” – Stanley, on his Quicken Loans victory back in July. We can be sure that leading a field this strong will have its knocks, but even the world’s best will have their work cut out by an emotionally invested champion. Whatever the outcome it is clear that big moments are yet to happen in this playoff finale, with big names lurking after round one.