ATLANTA — Dustin Johnson watched his opening drive sail long and fall gently to the right, just like he imagined. So did the next drive. It was like that all afternoon at East Lake Golf Club, and the outcome was predictable.
Johnson is playing the best and looks tougher than ever to beat.
When he finished with a 10-foot birdie, Johnson matched the low round Sunday with a 6-under-par 64 to build a five-shot lead over Xander Schauffele (67) and Justin Thomas (66) in the Tour Championship, leaving him one round away from the FedEx Cup and its $15 million prize to cap the PGA Tour's 2019-20 season.
"I've got a lot of confidence in everything I'm doing right now," said Johnson, the tournament's No. 1 seed who is also the world's top-ranked golfer and has finished no worse than second in his past three starts.
A quick fix on the practice range the previous evening was all he needed to get straightened out after a Saturday spent largely in the rough. Johnson missed only three fairways during the third round, and not by much. He putted for birdie on all but three holes and made seven of them.
"He's showcased what he can do," Schauffele said. "If he does what he normally does, it's going to be almost impossible to catch him."
Normal these days for Johnson must be daunting for everyone else.
He was at 19 under overall, making this his fourth consecutive start with at least a share of the 54-hole lead. He converted one of those into an 11-shot victory in The Northern Trust at TPC Boston. He lost to a closing 65 by Collin Morikawa in the PGA Championship last month at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco, and he was stunningly felled at the BMW Championship on a 65-foot putt by Jon Rahm in a playoff at Olympia Fields Country Club near Chicago last weekend.
"We're going to need Dustin to throw us a bone and not have a good day," said the second-seeded Rahm, who shot a 66 and who was six shots back and alone in fourth, a stroke ahead of Morikawa (67).
Still, Johnson knows better than anyone that it's not over. He had a six-shot lead in Shanghai three years ago and failed to win that World Golf Championship, though he had a new set of irons and was coming off a five-week break. He also had a five-shot lead two weeks ago and obliterated the course and the field.
Former Baylor School standout Harris English was the runner-up that day, closing with a fourth round in the 60s to finish one shot ahead of Daniel Berger and remarking afterward: "I kind of had my own tournament that I was playing."
The potential for Labor Day to feel like work for everybody but Johnson is certainly there.
"If he hits the ball like everybody knows he can and the way he's putting I haven't seen him putt that well in a long time. It's hard to stop," said English, who shot a 69 on Sunday and was at 6 under, tied for 18th in the 30-man field.
Only four players have a reasonable chance of catching Johnson.
Schauffele, a big-game player who won the Tour Championship three years ago, dropped only one shot on the front nine and finished with a 10-foot birdie putt to land in the final group with the leader. Thomas missed a 16-inch par putt on the 10th hole that he carelessly went to tap in, bounced back with a 25-foot birdie putt on the toughest par 3 at East Lake and made two more birdies coming in.
They were at 14 under, with everyone's overall scores in relation to par affected by their seeding going into the tournament.
"D.J. is clearly playing well. It wasn't easy today," Thomas said. "It's still East Lake. But anything can happen around this course. You can shoot 63 or 64, and you can shoot 73 or 74 very easily. I just need to hope that tomorrow is my 63 or 64."
Rahm has had a wild run in Atlanta. He opened with a 65, followed with a 74 and bounced back with a bogey-free round that only felt better when he finished with two birdies.
"The one good thing I have going for me is we're here to win, so tomorrow is a green light for everything," Rahm said.
Morikawa rallied with five birdies on the back nine to salvage a rough start and was two shots ahead of Berger, who joined Johnson with the other 64 but made up no ground on him and was nine behind, tied for sixth with Sungjae Im (72), who played in the final group with Johnson and must have wondered what hit him.
The FedEx Cup has been on Johnson's mind ever since he squandered a great chance to win it in 2016.
He went into the final round that year tied for the lead, then couldn't find a fairway, closing with a 73. He still had a chance to win the FedEx Cup when it was based on points. Only one player could have beaten him that day, and it was Rory McIlroy, who holed a shot from the fairway on the 16th for eagle and then won in a three-way playoff.
Johnson's victory at TPC Boston was his 22nd on the PGA Tour. He won the 2016 U.S. Open on the way to player of the year honors, and he has finished second at least once at the other three majors.
But he moves on from wins and he does the same with losses, no matter how high or how crushing. Even so, he thinks about that day four years ago in Atlanta, mainly because the FedEx Cup is filled with big names and his isn't among them yet.
"To be the FedEx Cup champion is something that I want to do. It's something that I want on my résumé when I quit playing golf," the 36-year-old said. "Yeah, it means a lot to me. So yes, I do want to win this tournament. I had a chance to win it a few years ago. I couldn't control winning by my golf. Tomorrow, I do."
McIlroy won't be in the mix this year. He was walking off the 17th tee and looked back at Johnson heading to the 14th, a 512-yard par 4 and the toughest at East Lake. Johnson already was 10 shots ahead of him, and then smashed a drive down the fairway and made a 15-foot birdie putt.
McIlroy birdied the 17th to salvage a 70. He was 11 shots back.