ATLANTA — For the second day in a row, no one had a better score than Jon Rahm at the Tour Championship. That's just what he needed to make up ground on Patrick Cantlay going into a weekend chase for $15 million in the PGA Tour's 2020-21 season finale.
Rahm birdied his last three holes Friday for a 5-under-par 65. Cantlay birdied his last two holes for a bogey-free 66 to keep one shot ahead.
It's not quite a two-man race for the FedEx Cup with 36 holes still to play at East Lake Golf Club, though it was shaping up as a possibility. The closest player to Cantlay and Rahm on the leaderboard was Bryson DeChambeau, who was six shots behind after losing ground with his 67 on Friday.
"We definitely feed off each other," Rahm said. "And that's probably why you see the difference in the scoreboard right now."
Rahm is No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking. Cantlay is No. 1 in the FedEx Cup standings, with that top seed allowing him to start this tournament at 10 under and with a two-stroke lead over Tony Finau, with DeChambeau at 7 under and Rahm another stroke back before the first shot Thursday.
In the first round, Cantlay had made an effort to pay little mind to the advantage his success ahead of the tournament granted him.
On Friday, he looked as though he was protecting a lead, often playing to the fat of the green. That was more a product of showing respect to an East Lake course that punishes even slight misses on the wrong side of the hole. Cantlay hit 16 of 18 greens, and only twice did he have par putts from about the five-foot range.
"I'm playing really well, and I think I'm playing the golf course the right way," he said.
Asked if the idea was to chip away at the lead, Rahm replied: "What other strategy is there?"
"As soon as we teed off, that didn't matter," he said of the four-shot deficit. "There's a lot of golf to be played, even now."
The reason for Cantlay's advantage was because of what happened last weekend at Caves Valley Golf Club, outside of Baltimore.
Cantlay and Rahm played in the final threesome with DeChambeau going into the weekend at the BMW Championship. Cantlay finished 66-66 and won the tournament when he beat DeChambeau, whose weekend rounds were 67-66, on the sixth hole of a playoff. Rahm closed 70-70 and tied for ninth, dropping to the No. 4 seed.
That now seems long ago. This Tour Championship, to a degree, feels more like a normal tournament with half of it gone.
Cantlay was at 17 under, and he and Rahm will be in the final group again.
DeChambeau had more work to do, as did Justin Thomas, who made two bogeys and failed to birdie the par-5 18th in his round of 67. He was seven behind and alone in fourth.
"A place like this, there's not really a lead that's safe with how tough it it can play," Thomas said. "But at the end of the day, I can't worry about what the other guys are doing. I just have to go out and try to make some birdies and stop making mistakes."
Harris English, tied for third with DeChambeau when they were six strokes back after the first round, made his share of mistakes with five bogeys in his round of 69. That left the Baylor School graduate, the No. 7 seed, at 9 under and tied for fifth with Finau (67), Kevin Na (67), Norway's Viktor Hovland (68) and Australia's Cameron Smith (68).
"I still like my spot," said English, even as he admitted that it "looks like they're kind of running away with it, Cantlay and Rahm."
Jordan Spieth couldn't escape trouble, either. He was going for his fourth straight birdie to get right in the mix, facing a 10-foot putt on the 13th hole. He three-putted, lost momentum and shot a 67. Spieth, Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy (66) and South Africa's Louis Oosthuizen (67) were at 8 under.
Gone are the low scores from the first two FedEx Cup playoff events, the Northern Trust at rain-soaked Liberty Natitonal Golf Club in New Jersey and then at Caves Valley as players at each course had a putting chance for a 59. The best anyone in this 30-man field at East Lake — still slightly soft from rain and a light breeze — has managed is a 65.
So it's tougher for players to make up a lot of ground unless the leaders come back to the pack, and there has been little indication Cantlay and Rahm are going to do that.
Cantlay had plenty of looks at birdies, but unlike this past Sunday, he didn't hear many calls of "Patty Ice" — because not many of those putts were going in. He got up and down from a bunker on the par-5 sixth. His wedge shot into the 13th green spun back to an inch of the cup.
Rahm holed a 35-foot putt from off the green at the 13th, gave it back with a bad drive to the right on the next hole, then closed the gap to one shot with a 10-foot birdie on the 16th.
The final two holes felt like a duel, even for a lazy Friday afternoon. Rahm poured in a 25-foot birdie putt on the 17th, and Cantlay matched his birdie from 15 feet, the first time he had made a putt longer than five feet all day.
On the closing hole, Rahm blasted out of the front bunker to tap-in range. Cantlay chipped down the slope and with the grain — one of the few times he was out of position — and watched it trail off eight feet from the hole. He made that to regain the lead.
"When you have somebody like him who played a round with very few mistakes — you could argue that it could have been a lot lower — it only motivates me to keep doing a little bit better," Rahm said. "Even though I want to focus on myself, you know he's not going to let up, and he keeps putting it in the fairway and on the green and in the fairway and on the green.
"It can raise your playing level a little bit, as well as me raising his level when I'm making birdies."