Stepping to the first tee in Round 1 with a score already on your card is always an oddity at the Tour Championship, but starting the field with staggered scores does make for a clearer narrative after the first 18 holes. That narrative looks a lot like it did 24 hours ago before Round 1 began with Patrick Cantlay still leading the pack with a two-stroke lead on second place.
Cantlay began the day at 10 under after winning the BMW Championship last week in a playoff over Bryson DeChambeau to jump to the top of the 2021 FedEx Cup standings, and he never relinquished the lead despite pressure from some big stars (see below). He's no longer the co-favorite (because Rahm played the round of the day), but he's still clear of the field with $15 million on the table for whoever wins on Sunday.
Let's take a closer look at his round and what's on deck for the rest of the week.
1. Patrick Cantlay (-13): After gaining over 14 strokes with his putter last week, Cantlay was due to cool off in Round 1 on Thursday, which he did. However, as we saw last week, the rest of his game picked him up. He's one of the few players in the world without any holes at all, and his tee-to-green game carried him Thursday. His 2-under 68 was enough to put him two clear of Rahm and four clear of the rest of the field. This is the benefit of being No. 1 in the FedEx Cup standings going into this week at East Lake. There's more room for miscues, and you can actually win the event without having to putt your brains out over four straight days.
2. Jon Rahm (-11): Rahm was the co-favorite coming in, and now he's alone as the favorite after shooting a 5-under 65. And why wouldn't he be? Rahm has been playing the best golf of anyone in the world over the last few months (and throughout the year), and it would be improbable for him to end the season with just one victory (June's U.S. Open at Torrey Pines). You hate to use the word "deserve" as it relates to anything in golf, but if anyone deserves a win based on the world-class level he's been playing at, it's Rahm. He said after his round that he's not very caught up in where the scores were at coming in (he started four back of Cantlay) nor where they're at after just 18 holes (he's two back).
"It's very easy to get caught up on how far back you start," said Rahm. "I don't think I really once thought about it out there. I was just trying to post a score. My job is to hit the best shot I can each time, and that's all can I control. So I can't be thinking of what the people ahead of me are doing. And I think that applies to tomorrow as well. Maybe on the weekend you think about who is leading, who is not, but try to think about it as a regular event and not how much distance I got to make up. Obviously, 72 holes, it's a lot of holes and four shots is not that much."
T3. Harris English, Bryson DeChambeau (-8): These two had wildly different days in terms of their iron play, and a lot of it came on a single hole. English aced the 224-yard par-3 15th and gained 2.2 strokes on the field. DeChambeau hit it in the water and lost 1.2 strokes to the field. A 3.4-stroke swing on a single shot is most of the reason English ranked first in that category in Round 1 and DeChambeau ranked 28th. English is fascinating to me this week, too. He's a tremendous putter who didn't make much of anything in Round 1, and he's 18-1 to win with only two guys out in front of him. DeChambeau has more firepower, but I think I probably trust English more for the rest of this week.
T5. Viktor Hovland, Cameron Smith, Justin Thomas (-7): Hovland had the round of the day going for most of Round 1, partly because of this ridiculous 2 he made on the par-4 5th hole. Everybody in this group has the juice to get their score into the mid-teens and make a run at the top prize, but if I have to pick one, it's probably J.T. He destroys at this course, posted a good putting round on Thursday (he's been struggling in that area) and already closed like a monster in one big event this season (Players Championship in March). Seeing him or Hovland in the final pairing on Sunday would not be surprising.
T8. Kevin Na, Tony Finau (-6): Of those who started at the top of the board, Finau had the roughest day. In fact, only Hideki Matsuyama (who shot 77) posted a worse score than Finau did on Thursday. He's still in contention because he started at 8 under, but an unusually poor day from tee to green (-2.6 strokes gained) leave him needing three strong rounds coming home to get back to where he was two weeks ago, atop the race to the FedEx Cup.