ATLANTA — The final hole at East Lake Golf Club hosted two strange sights Saturday during the second round of the Tour Championship.
First, Rory McIlroy hit a shot that toppled out of thick rough right into the water in front of him, a distance laser cameras estimated at 85 feet, 8 inches, not accounting for how far the ball sank to the bottom.
Then, Dustin Johnson reached his drive and could see the entire ball in the grass. It was in the first cut of rough, sure, but a relief considering he didn't hit a fairway over the final three hours.
It was a rare green light for Johnson, and his 5-iron shot put the ball 30 feet away from the cup for a two-putt birdie and a par round of 70. That allowed the world's top-ranked golfer who is also the No. 1 seed for the PGA Tour's playoff finale to escape with a one-shot lead over Sungjae Im halfway through the chase for the FedEx Cup and its $15 million prize.
Johnson headed straight to the practice range to try to figure out why he hit only two fairways Saturday, though he was satisfied to have so few chances and still stay in front after sharing the first-round lead with second-seeded Jon Rahm.
"Two different golf courses if you're playing from the fairway or playing from the rough," said Johnson, who opened with a 67 but was at 13 under on the leaderboard with his head start of 10 under for being the top seed factored in.
"Playing from the fairway, you can attack the course, you can shoot a good score," Johnson explained. "Playing from where I did, it's not so much fun. But I managed my game pretty well, and pleased with the score that I shot, especially the way I drove the ball."
McIlroy also shrugged off his shot, one in which he tried to do too much with a gnarly lie, not so much to get over the water but a bunker on the right side. It cost him a bogey for a 71 that left him five shots out of the lead — tied for eighth with Brendon Todd (68) — though he could see a bigger picture.
"It doesn't look like I'm going to lose any ground today anyway, which is some sort of consolation," he said.
That might have been the best take after a second round filled with birdies and blunders. The next 36 holes are all about opportunity for the nine players separated by just five shots.
As well as Johnson has been playing — two runner-up finishes and an 11-shot victory in his past three starts — there was a chance he could have taken his two-shot lead over second-seeded Rahm at the start of the tournament and run away with it. As it turns out, the final two rounds of the PGA Tour's 2019-20 season could be much more than a runaway or even another duel between Johnson and Rahm.
Im, the budding star from South Korea whose game had gone lukewarm coming out of the tour's three-month shutdown amid the coronavirus pandemic, birdied three of his last four holes for a 64 and will be in the final group with Johnson.
Xander Schauffele, who won the Tour Championship as a rookie in 2017, ran off three straight birdies late in his round for a 65 and was two shots behind in third, with Justin Thomas (71) one stroke further back. Another big move came from PGA Championship winner Collin Morikawa, whose 66 put him four shots out of the lead, tied for fifth with Rahm (74) and England's Tyrell Hatton (66).
Baylor School graduate Harris English (69) was tied for 14th and eight shots back.
Johnson hit the fairway on the first and fifth holes, and both went down as pars on his scorecard. He still managed a birdie on No. 8 — he drove into a bunker, came up short of the green and chipped in from 40 feet as well as on both the par 5s and on No. 3, where he made a 40-footer.
"I feel like I got my two bad rounds out of the way and I've got two good ones coming, where the other guys, they've shot some good scores," Johnson said. "My game feels good. I've still got a lot of confidence in everything I'm doing. Just I've got to hit it in the fairway. That's pretty simple."
He wasn't alone in his struggles. Thomas pulled within one shot until he couldn't convert birdie chances and then drove so far left on the 18th that he had to pitch out sideways, leading to a bogey and a 71.
Rahm again was keeping stride with Johnson until he found the water off the tee at the par-3 15th and made a double bogey, followed by a wild drive that led to a bogey on the 16th.
What was so maddening to Thomas was that he felt like he was hitting it well enough from tee to green. He ranks last in the 30-man field in putting, though, which would not surprise him.
"I should have never shot over par today with how well I played," he said. "I just made absolutely nothing."
That much was evident when his six-foot par putt swirled in and out of the cup, and Thomas gave it a sarcastic thumbs-up.
Six days after a thrilling playoff win over Johnson at the BMW Championship, Rahm was deeply frustrated, mainly because he couldn't capitalize when he was in the fairway. And yet he's still only four shots behind with 36 holes remaining — at least — and the $15 million still very much up for grabs.
"The closest I came from the fifth hole on to make a birdie was that bunker shot on 18," he said of his third shot from behind the green. "That's the best look I had all day. It's just one of those days. But like you said, the mentality is right now we've played two days of the tournament. I'm four back going into the weekend. Anything can happen."