ATLANTA — After Xander Schauffele hit his approach to eight feet on the 18th hole Thursday at the Tour Championship, Matt Kuchar, the other player in his pairing, sidled up and said, “You’re putting for a 59.”
The scoreboard showed Schauffele at 10 under on the par-70 East Lake course. But Kuchar was kidding, and he elicited a chuckle from Schauffele, who had started the tournament at four under as the Tour Championship’s highly anticipated staggered-scoring format made its debut.
Schauffele, 25, missed his birdie attempt. But his bogey-free six-under 64 was the low round of the day, vaulting him into a three-way tie for the lead in the tournament, which is the FedEx Cup playoff finale. Schauffele shared the top spot with the world No. 1, Brooks Koepka (67) and Justin Thomas, who started the day at 10 under and treaded water with a 70.
It seemed fitting that Schauffele, who has broken 70 in eight of his nine career rounds at East Lake, was the one to post the low score of the day, erasing Thomas’s two-stroke lead.
Two years ago, Schauffele and Thomas combined to provide the most compelling argument in favor of the tweaks to the playoff format that were instituted this year.
With a birdie at the last hole, Schauffele, then a rookie, won by a single stroke over Thomas, who had already sealed the FedEx Cup championship with players still on the course on Sunday.
And even though he won the sweepstake, Thomas’s face registered disappointment at missing out on the door prize, which was not a good look for selling the excitement of the FedEx Cup finale.
Did Schauffele appreciate being a thorn in Thomas’s side once more?
“It’s just Thursday,” Schauffele, a two-time winner this season, said. “I’d love to be a thorn in someone’s side on Sunday.”
Rory McIlroy, who started five strokes behind Thomas, voiced his skepticism of the staggered format in a news conference on the eve of the tournament. McIlroy’s worry, he said, was that Thomas would open with a low round and drain all the drama from the tournament.
“You’ve just got to go out there and try to play some good golf and not look around you and not look at what other guys are doing,” McIlroy said Wednesday, “and trust that by the end of the week things will hopefully even out.”
Like McIlroy, who birdied three of the final six holes, Koepka finished strong. He played the final four holes in three under. Koepka wore all black on Thursday, but pictures of him without a wardrobe seemed to be what most people wanted to discuss on Thursday.
Koepka had posed naked for ESPN Magazine’s September Body issue, and some images were made public this week. Some of the shots were taken at Floridian National Golf Club, his coach’s home base, and Koepka said he won’t soon forget dropping his robe to hit from a tee box near where the coach, Claude Harmon III, was conducting a lesson.
“I’m up on the tee box,” Koepka said, “and they had all their camera stuff set up in front of me face-on, but around the corner I see Claude teaching this, maybe 12-year-old kid, and his mom is just over there. I’m like ‘This is awkward,’ and Claude’s peeking around the corner laughing.”
Koepka added, “I’m pretty sure everybody that was at the golf course saw me that day, but whatever.”
Did he feel self-conscious?
“I never really thought about it,” Koepka said, adding: “I enjoyed it. I’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.”
Koepka adhered to a strict diet in the weeks leading to the photo shoot and shrank to 187 pounds, whittling 20 pounds from his 6-foot frame. Compared with that, it was easy to shed the three-stroke deficit that he had at the beginning of the day.
“It’s nice to be tied for the lead after the first day,” Koepka, the front-runner for Player of the Year honors, said, adding, “Three more days to grind it out and finish the year strong.”