ATLANTA — Collin Morikawa faced a tough road at the Tour Championship, starting the tournament nine shots behind.
He also knew he had 72 holes — and an example from Rory McIlroy last year — to make up ground in the finale of the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup postseason. He managed to do that in one day at East Lake Golf Club, with a little help from the top.
Morikawa finally put together his most complete round of the year at a good time Thursday, closing with three straight birdies for a 9-under-par 61 that gave him a share of the lead with Keegan Bradley (63), who hopes to be part of the U.S. team at next month's Ryder Cup in Italy, and Norway's Viktor Hovland (68), who is coming off a win Sunday in the BMW Championship, the second postseason tournament.
They were at 10 under overall, the score in relation to par that top-seeded Scottie Scheffler started with in the stifling heat of late August in Georgia.
At the end of one round, 16 players — slightly more than half the 30-man field — were separated by four shots in the chase for the $18 million FedEx Cup prize.
That includes McIlroy, who last year was 11 shots behind on the front nine of the opening round, six shots behind going into the last day and still won. Just getting to the first tee was a victory of sorts this time for McIlroy, who has been dealing with back spasms the past three days and could not hold a club over the golf ball on the eve of the tournament.
He shot a 70 and was three behind, which he said left him "over the moon."
The staggered start is based on FedEx Cup standings. Scheffler began at 10 under as No. 1, all the way down to the final five players who started at par. Morikawa was No. 24 in the standings and began at 1 under. Now he's tied for the lead.
"It feels great," Morikawa said. "Shoot, no better time I guess than our Tour Championship to show up and start playing some good golf."
Scheffler left frustrated over another wasted round. He ran off three birdies in six holes and led by as many as five shots on the front nine. And then he had a trio of three-putts — two that cost him momentum, one that cost him the lead.
The biggest mistake was a tee shot into the water on the par-3 15th, followed by a three-putt from 15 feet for a triple-bogey 6. Suddenly, he was two behind. A late birdie left him at 71 to put him at 9 under, one shot out of the lead.
This was four days after Scheffler missed three putts from the six-foot range on the back nine at Olympia Fields Country Club that cost him a chance at winning the BMW Championship.
"I'm obviously pretty frustrated with how I played today," Scheffler said, eventually finding some perspective. "I guess it's a little bit of a blessing to have a pretty bad day and still be in the tournament. So, yeah, go out there tomorrow and just keep fighting."
Morikawa knew he had a chance based on what McIlroy did last year. He was so excited by his iron play he was ready to go another 18 holes in a heat index that topped 100 degrees.
How well was the two-time major champion swinging? Consider the 15th hole, a 224-yard par-3 layout over the lake to a peninsula green.
"Immediately when I hit the tee shot, I didn't even watch it because I knew where it was going to go, and that's the kind of control you want," Morikawa said. "Some days are going to be better than others, but it's nice to know that that golf swing is just exactly where I want it."
At one point on the back nine, Morikawa said he told his caddie they hadn't hit so many pin-high shot in a full tournament, much less one day.
Bradley is new to this format — he had most recently played in the Tour Championship in 2014, when it was based on points and way too much math — so it was a jolt to run off three straight birdies on the front nine and see his name on the video board at 6 under.
"I thought they had my score wrong ... and then I realized it's my first time playing this format," Bradley said with a laugh.
He's trying to worry about his score only, each hole, each day, just like any other tournament.
He's also trying not to think about the Ryder Cup, no small task. Bradley, a two-time winner this season, finished 11th in the standings and has to wait until Tuesday to see if he's one of the six captain's picks made by Zach Johnson. Morikawa finished 10th in the standings.
"I try my hardest to not think of the Ryder Cup, but everybody asks me about it," Bradley said. "I'm walking down the fairways, everyone's yelling to me about it. A two-year qualifying process, with the tournament a month away, I don't think everything is based on this tournament. But it might be. So better to go play well than to not."