ATLANTA — Dustin Johnson is the No. 1 seed and will start with a two-shot lead at the Tour Championship, not nearly enough to tempt him into looking too far ahead at a FedEx Cup title that has slipped away from him once before.
"It's not like I've got a two-shot lead going into the final round," said Johnson, who speaks from experience that includes losing a six-stroke advantage in the final round of a World Golf Championship three years ago when he was No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking, just as he is now.
The final event of the PGA Tour's 2019-20 season tees off at noon Friday at East Lake Golf Club with a 30-player field that includes Baylor School graduate Harris English at No. 7 in the standings. That puts him at 4 under par on the leaderboard, six strokes behind Johnson, who understands this tournament may be special in its setup and what it offers but is like any other when it comes to what it will take for him to win.
"I'm still going to have to play some really good golf for four days if I want to be a FedEx Cup champion," Johnson said.
Then there are the players in the bottom sixth of the standings, including Billy Horschel, who will be 10 shots behind Johnson before they even hit their opening drives. They have to play their absolute best golf and get some help.
"I know I'm going to have to do something special," Horschel said.
The strangest season in golf — no tournaments for three months because of the COVID-19 pandemic, with only one major championship in the past 14 months — will end on Labor Day with the second year of a format that gives players a head start depending on how they played up to this point.
Johnson's 10-under start is two shots ahead of Jon Rahm, who beat him in a playoff Sunday at Olympia Fields Country Club with a 65-foot birdie putt to win the BMW Championship.
Rory McIlroy won last year as the No. 5 seed, meaning he started five behind. He posted an actual score of 13-under 267 and still needed the top two seeds — Justin Thomas and Patrick Cantlay — to falter. McIlroy was 10 shots better than Thomas and 22 better than Cantlay. That did the trick.
Is it possible for someone to start 10 shots behind and still win the $15 million bonus?
"It's going to happen one year," said Marc Leishman, who will start nine shots back. "I just don't know if it'll be this year, next year or the year after. If the top three guys get off to a slow start ... 5 (under) could potentially be leading after one round."
Thomas knows how that works. He was the No. 1 seed a year ago, opened with a 70 and was in a three-way tie for the lead after one round, and the rest of the tournament didn't go much better. Still, although he witnessed McIlroy winning from five shots behind at the start, a 10-shot deficit looks feasible only on paper.
"It would be one thing if they were 10 back of one person," Thomas said. "But there's 25 people ahead of them, and that's the hard part. I think if you gave me even par and you gave 'X' player at 10 under par and it was just us two, I think I'd have a better chance of catching him."
More likely, at least this year, is a scenario the PGA Tour has tried to avoid: a runaway with no drama.
Nothing will be as bad as 2008, when the format at the time allowed Vijay Singh to wrap it up no matter how he played at East Lake. He needed simply to stay upright for four days, and the three-time major champion from Fiji managed fine.
Johnson, however, is playing as well as anyone, and he's arguably the biggest talent in the game. He has had the 54-hole lead in his past three tournaments, winning The Northern Trust and finishing runner-up in the PGA Championship and the BMW Championship. Imagine if he gets it going at East Lake while staked to a two-shot lead.
Kevin Kisner still thinks the odds are a winner from the bottom of the pack is more likely to happen before someone from the top wins in a landslide.
"D.J. could shoot 9 under tomorrow and run away, and it would be a total snoozer," Kisner said. "But I just think there's too many good players near the top. Ten shots is surmountable over four days if somebody gets really hot."
Horschel at least has that chance. He secured the 30th and final position, but only because Corey Conners four-putted the final hole at Olympia Fields, with the last three putts from five feet. Mackenzie Hughes cracked the top 30 by making a five-foot par putt on his last hole.
It all starts to unfold Friday, and there is plenty on the line for everyone, mostly money. The $15 million payout — $14 million in cash, $1 million deferred — is only part of the $45.6 million in bonus money being paid out this week.
It still has to be earned. A year ago, Cantlay was the No. 2 seed and didn't break par in any of the four rounds. He slipped to No. 28, which was worth $415,000. Whoever finishes second earns $5 million.