ATLANTA – Just getting to East Lake is the challenge for Henrik Stenson. Playing the golf course appears to be the easy part.
Two years after his wire-to-wire victory to capture the FedEx Cup, Stenson was just as dominant Thursday until he stalled at the end and had to settle for a 7-under 63 and a two-shot lead over Paul Casey in the Tour Championship.
Stenson ripped a 4-wood from 288 yards to 25 feet and made the eagle putt on the par-5 ninth to go out in 29. He added two more birdies to reach 8 under through 12 holes until he made pars the rest of the way and his lone bogey on the 17th.
Even so, it was just the start he wanted on a course that he has figured out. Stenson opened with a 64 two years ago, stretched his lead to as many as nine shots in the third round and joined Tom Watson as the only wire-to-wire winners of the Tour Championship.
He missed last year when he failed to get into the top 30 who qualify for the FedEx Cup finale, and knew he only needed to get back to have a chance.
“I wanted to get out of the blocks quickly, and I surely did,” Stenson said.
Jason Day, in his first tournament as the No. 1 player in the world, stayed with Stenson until one shot. Day birdied his opening three holes, but his drive on the par-4 fifth hole sailed through the trees on the right, over the fence and out-of-bounds. He made triple bogey and never really got back on track. He shot a 69 and was six behind.
“I wish I could say that I was a machine and I can hit it straight down the gut every single time, 315 yards,” Day said. “But unfortunately, as humans we’re going to make errors. … To make triple was pretty disappointing, but it’s early on in the tournament, so I can’t dwell on that.”
Rory McIlroy started slowly, finished the front nine with three straight birdies and had a 66 to join British Open champion Zach Johnson.
Jordan Spieth took the stress out of his game and rarely was out of position. He just didn’t hit it close enough for birdie chances, made three of them and shot a 68 to join a large group that included Brooks Koepka and Brandt Snedeker.
For the longest time, Stenson looked uncatchable.
The trouble at East Lake is the Bermuda rough, which is why the powerful Swede leans so heavily on his 3-wood off the tee. He kept it in play, hit iron shots as crisp as ever and made plenty of putts. It was an ideal combination for scoring, until the final hour.
His round stalled with a 4-iron that missed the green on the par-5 15th, and his bunker shot came out hot and left him 20 feet away. He made par, saved par from a tough lie in the rough at the 16th and missed a 6-foot par putt on the 17th.
“I can’t really play the front nine any better – very similar to what I did in 2013 when I started with a good score and shot 5 under on the front,” Stenson said. “So hopefully, the rest of the week can be as successful as it was then.”
Stenson is No. 4 in the FedEx Cup and has been a big topic of conversation this week. He could finish as low as third and still win the $10 million bonus without having won a tournament all year. But the Swede looked at it from a simpler form of math. As one of the top five seeds, he only has to win the Tour Championship to take home golf’s biggest payoff, and that’s all he was thinking about.
“I’ll be happy on Sunday if I were to finish second and win the FedEx Cup,” he said. “I’ll be smiling more if I got two trophies, but I’ll deal with one, as well. But at this point, I’m here to try and win this Tour Championship for the second time, and it would be great to pull that off. Still a long ways to go. We’re only one round down and as we know, a lot of things can happen in 54 holes.”
It was a big turnaround for Casey, who had to pull out of the Deutsche Bank Championship three weeks ago with a sore back. He treated it, worked on his posture and felt as good as new at East Lake.
“It allows me to drive the ball well around here and that was really the key to getting around,” Casey said.
Sixteen players in the 28-man field broke par in easy scoring conditions, with cloud cover and some drizzle late in the day. The biggest buzz was for Day and Spieth, in the same group for the eighth time since the final round of the PGA Championship.
Day’s triple bogey erased those three early birdies and he made only two birdies over his final 13 holes, including a two-putt on the par-5 15th hole.