For seven straight nights, Patrick Cantlay went to sleep with the number "one" next to his name in the FedEx Cup standings. On Monday morning, after winning the 2021 Tour Championship, he'll wake up with a much bigger number in his bank account: $15 million (from a massive $46 million purse).
Cantlay (-21) won at East Lake Golf Club on Sunday by one stroke over Jon Rahm (-20) after shooting a 1-under 69 in the final round. Cantlay started the week at 10 under after winning the BMW Championship last Sunday in a six-hole playoff over Bryson DeChambeau, and he never fell from the top of the leaderboard, capturing back-to-back events to end the season and likely the PGA Tour Player of the Year award to boot.
Holding off the best players in the world at a tournament like this -- even when you have a head start like Cantlay -- is no small feat. That is doubly true when your playing partner is the No. 1 player in the world who was aching for his second win of the season. That showed at the end for the eventual champion. After a breezy first 45 holes of the tournament, the last 27 were a bit of a war.
Cantlay closed Saturday's third round with three bogeys on the second nine (he still shot par) and opened Sunday's finale with two bogeys on the front (he still shot par). It looked as if the tournament was tilting in his favor when he stuck his approach on the par-4 13th hole to 4 feet, but he power lipped the putt, and Rahm had renewed life. That was extinguished a few holes later when Cantlay hit another approach tight, this time on the par-4 16th to 7 feet. And this time, he made the putt for birdie to go up a pair with two holes to play.
Still, Rahm wouldn't go away. Cantlay hit two bad shots on the 17th, and he had a missable bogey putt while Rahm had a good look at birdie. Rahm missed and Cantlay made, cutting the lead to one entering the 72nd hole. Cantlay slammed the door with a killer shot from 217 yards to 11 feet for an easy two-putt birdie and the one-stroke win over Rahm after his chaser ran his 19-foot eagle putt to tie past the hole.
We talk all the time about how difficult it is to go wire to wire at an event, but what we mean by that is leading after every round. Cantlay led after all 72 holes. The staggered start, with Cantlay beginning the tournament at 10 under, is meant to provide an advantage to those who have played well in the FedEx Cup Playoffs and throughout the season, but it also heaps pressure on those who are out in front. That Cantlay was able to maintain that advantage in the face of such pressure was remarkable.
"It was tough. It was definitely different than any other week," said Cantlay of leading the FedEx Cup for over a week. "It's the longest lead I've ever held. I just tried to stay day after day in the present."
Rahm's season, too, was as amazing as it was improbable. He actually finished tied for the lowest score this week if you only count strokes played over the four rounds. Combine that with his withdrawal from the Memorial after Round 3 because of a positive COVID-19 test, and he finished a season in which he had the lowest score in the field after his final round of the tournament three different times and walked away with just one PGA Tour win. That seems impossible, but it's true.
Despite just the one win, Rahm is deserving of consideration for PGA Tour Player of the Year. However, you don't have to shed any tears for the U.S. Open champion. He missed out on the $15 million Cantlay collected but took home $5 million for second prize. Kevin Na, who finished third at 16 under, pocketed $4 million.
While there is plenty to say about Rahm's amazing year, Sunday was about Cantlay. Just like last Sunday.
It's easy to understate just how difficult it is to run from out in front for such a long time against such an elite field. Though Cantlay got a bump from the beginning, not everybody is built to sustain a lead. It's uncomfortable and difficult, even without that amount of money on the line. Consider that Cantlay is the 13th different golfer to win the Tour Championship in the event's 15-year history.
Cantlay didn't make it look easy, but he never really does. What he did do was make it look great. Giving away a lead at a tough place like East Lake is incredibly easy, and Cantlay never did it. Not for a single day. Not for a single hole. Not for a single minute of the last tournament of the 2020-21 PGA Tour season. Grades (for Cantlay and Rahm): A+
Here are the rest of our grades for the 2021 Tour Championship.
Kevin Na (3rd): What a showing from Na, who finished third in the field from tee to green despite losing strokes off the tee. He was low-key trying to play his way onto the U.S. Ryder Cup team, and he wasn't afraid to discuss that after his final round.
"I was trying to win that secret leaderboard, where everybody started from even par, to get Captain [Steve] Stricker's attention, so I could get a captain's pick," said Na. "I did the best I could. I have two runner-up finishes in the last six starts, another top-10 at a playoff event and maybe win or second here. So I mean, from where I started to finish third in the FedExCup, eight shots back, I think I'm looking strong for a pick." Grade: A+
Justin Thomas (4th): J.T. looked strong this week after an up-and-down summer. That's a good thing for the U.S. side heading into a Ryder Cup with a lot of questions. He let it rip at a win this week, and though he didn't get it, he got back to doing what he does best: flushing irons and burying birdie putts. This one toward the end was luscious. Thomas finished in the top 10 of his fifth straight Tour Championship on Sunday. Grade: A-
Daniel Berger (T11): Berger shot the round of the day on Sunday and likely solidified his spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team in the process. His 64 was nearly five strokes better than the field average, and it was arguably the round of the tournament as he birdied the last four holes to get in the house at 8 under for the week. He stayed flushing, too, finishing fifth in this field in strokes gained on approach shots (which is not dissimilar from where he's been existing for the last few months). We'll cover the Ryder Cup hopefuls more at the beginning of next week, but that showing on last 18 holes was a big-boy performance when he probably felt at least a little bit of pressure that he needed it. Grade: A
Patrick Reed (25th): Though his performance was impressive considering he was in a hospital bed two weeks ago, I'm not sure Reed accomplished what was necessary to make the Ryder Cup team this week. He shot 1-over 71 on Sunday and finished the week 2 under, which was good for solo 25th place. The next few days will be interesting as the discussion for the 12th man on the U.S. squad begins, but even though there's a scenario in which his recent sickness and past history at team events could have worked in his favor, I don't believe it's going to this time around. Part of that is because his tee-to-green game is not where it needs to be. Only Brooks Koepka (who withdrew) and Sam Burns hit it worse than Reed this week at East Lake. He held on a bit with a good putting performance, but I don't believe it was enough. Grade: B-
Check out how the top 30 fared winning significant prize money in the FedEx Cup.