ATLANTA – Dustin Johnson is the No. 1 seed and starts with a two-shot lead at the Tour Championship, not nearly enough to tempt him into looking too far ahead at a FedEx Cup title that already has slipped away from him once before.
“It's not like I've got a two-shot lead going into the final round,” Johnson said, who speaks from experience of once losing a six-shot lead in the final round of a World Golf Championship.
“I'm still going to have to play some really good golf for four days if I want to be a FedEx Cup champion.”
And then there are players like Billy Horschel and Mackenzie Hughes, who will be 10 shots behind Johnson before they even hit their opening drives at East Lake. They have to play their absolute best golf and get some help.
“I know I'm going to have to do something special,” Horschel said.
The strangest season in golf — no tournaments for three months because of the COVID-19 pandemic, only one major championship in the last 14 months — ends on Labor Day with the second year of a format that gives players a head start depending on how they played up to this point.
Johnson, also the No. 1 player in the world, starts at 10-under par and is two shots ahead of Jon Rahm, who beat him last week at Olympia Fields with a 65-foot birdie putt.
Rory McIlroy won last year from the No. 5 seed, meaning he started five behind. He posted an actual score of 13-under 267 and still needed the top two seeds — Justin Thomas and Patrick Cantlay — to falter. McIlroy was 10 shots better than Thomas, 22 shots better than Cantlay. That did the trick.
Is it possible for someone to start 10 shots behind and still win the $15 million bonus?
“It's going to happen one year," Marc Leishman said. “I just don't know if it'll be this year, next year or the year after. If the top three guys get off to a slow start ... 5 (under) could potentially be leading after one round."
Thomas knows how that works. He was the No. 1 seed a year ago, opened with a 70 and was in a three-way tie for the lead after one day. The rest of the week didn't go much better. But while he witnessed McIlroy winning from five shots behind at the start, a 10-shot deficit looks feasible only on paper.
"It would be one thing if they were 10 back of one person,” Thomas said. “But there's 25 people ahead of them, and that's the hard part. I think if you gave me even par and you gave ‘X’ player at 10-under par and it was just us two, I think I'd have a better chance of catching him."
More likely, at least this year, is a scenario the PGA Tour has tried to avoid — a runaway with no drama.
Nothing will be as bad as 2008 when the format allowed Vijay Singh to wrap it up no matter how he played at East Lake. He needed to stay upright for only four days, and the Fijian managed fine.
Johnson, however, is playing as well as anyone, and he's arguably the biggest talent in the game. He has had the 54-hole lead in his last three tournaments, winning at the TPC Boston and finishing runner-up in the PGA Championship and BMW Championship. Imagine if he gets it going at East Lake while staked to a two-shot lead.
Kevin Kisner still thinks the odds are a winner from the bottom of the pack is more likely to happen before someone from the top wins in a landslide.
“DJ could shoot 9 under tomorrow and run away and it would be a total snoozer,” Kisner said. “But I just think there's too many good players near the top. Ten shots is surmountable over four days if somebody gets really hot.”
Horschel and Hughes at least have that chance. Horschel secured the 30th and final position, but only because Corey Conners four-putted the final hole at Olympia Fields (the last three putts from 5 feet). Hughes cracked the top 30 by making a 5-foot par putt on his last hole.
It all starts to unfold Friday, and there is plenty on the line for everyone, mostly money. The $15 million payout — $14 million in cash, $1 million deferred — is only part of the $45.6 million in bonus money being paid out this week.
It still has to be earned. A year ago, Cantlay was the No. 2 seed and didn't break par in any of the four rounds . He slipped to No. 28, which was worth $415,000. Whoever finishes second earns $5 million.