ATLANTA — Patrick Cantlay met his goal in the first round of the Tour Championship on Thursday, and it had nothing to do with the score on his card or the size of his lead in the final event of the PGA Tour's 2020-21 season.
As the top seed in the battle for the FedEx Cup, he started at 10 under par and with a two-shot lead over Tony Finau before even hitting a shot. Cantlay put together a 3-under-par 67 and finished the warm, breezy day at East Lake Golf Club with a two-shot lead over fourth-seeded Jon Rahm, who's No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking.
But for Cantlay, this was all about playing like it was simply another tournament round.
"I think being in the spot that I'm in, it would be easy to get ahead of yourself and easy to maybe stray from your game plan because you feel like you're ahead," Cantlay said. "And that's just not helpful, so I'm not going to do that."
Only four players had a better score in the 30-man field, so it was a good day regardless of the format, which allows players to start at various points under par depending on their FedEx Cup position.
Rahm began by chipping in for a birdie, kept the round from getting away from him with a few key saves — one for bogey, one for par — at the turn, and ran off four birdies over his last seven holes for a 65. Cantlay, meanwhile, moved to 13 under.
Five shots behind and tied for third were Bryson DeChambeau and Baylor School graduate Harris English, and only one of them managed to pick up a little ground on Cantlay while delivering one of the more exciting moments of the afternoon.
That would be English, who was headed in the wrong direction when he stepped to the tee at the par-3 15th over water, the second-toughest hole at East Lake, smashed a 5-iron from 224 yards and watched the ball drop for a hole-in-one, the first one at the Tour Championship since the event first came to East Lake in 1998.
The No. 7 seed followed with two more birdies for a 66, one better than Cantlay and putting English a little closer than when he started.
DeChambeau birdied his last three holes to salvage a 69. He started three shots back and is now five behind, without any reports of unruly behavior outside the ropes after the heckling of DeChambeau in recent weeks became big enough of a concern for the PGA Tour to emphasize the need for good behavior by fans.
The subject of name calling was, in this case, English.
One fan following along kept referring to him by another name — Hudson Swafford — which is understandable. English and Swafford were teammates at the University of Georgia, have similar builds, look a little alike. They're even tied in driving distance on the PGA Tour at 81st. Swafford, though, was among those who came up short of the final 30 who qualified to play at East Lake.
"He thought I was Hudson, like half the people out here," English said. "I think he kind of had a couple beers. ... He just couldn't quite tell from 50 yards out who I was."
Finau, meanwhile, shot a 72 and went from two strokes behind to seven back.
This is the third year of the format, and Cantlay doesn't know how the lower half feels. He was the No. 2 seed in 2019 when it started, the No. 1 seed last year. That first time didn't go well. He had one of his worst weeks of the year, which cost him nearly $2 million with how far he fell.
Justin Thomas was seeded first and third the previous two times. Now he's at No. 6, meaning he started six shots out of the lead. That was a new experience.
He noticed he already was in 10th place by the time he teed off, based on some early scoring, and found that a bit jarring. Worse yet was being 1 over on the front nine. Starting out six shots behind in the first place, his hopes could have ended early.
But he shot 31 on the back nine, netting five birdies and one impressive par save on the 14th, and pieced together a 67. He's still six back. It could have been worse.
"When you start behind like that, unfortunately, you just don't have the luxury of shooting a 1 over or 2 over the first round," Thomas said. "And I salvaged a good round out there and feel like I can easily go out there and shoot 6 or 7 under one of these next three days. And hopefully I do."
Rahm started four back and, like Cantlay, chose not to pay attention to anything but the next shot, even as the good start looked as though it could get away from him. He took a bogey from the left rough on No. 7, had to get up and down from behind the eighth green for another bogey and saved par from a bunker on the par-3 ninth.
That was as important as some of his birdies. Now he's two behind Cantlay with 54 holes left, and no matter how odd it might have seemed at the start, it feels like a regular tournament now.
"It's very easy to get caught up on how far back you start. I don't think I really once thought about it out there. I was just trying to post a score," Rahm said. "My job is to hit the best shot I can each time, and that's all can I control."