ATLANTA — Patrick Cantlay picked up his last birdie of the third round of the Tour Championship when he was least expecting it Saturday, and it felt like it was worth more than just one extra shot.
Clinging to a one-stroke lead over Jon Rahm, he went from the right rough to the first of two bunkers fronting the 18th green at East Lake Lake Golf Club with the pin tucked behind the second one. Cantlay safely blasted out to 25 feet and made it for a 3-under-par 67 to lead by two.
"I thought it was big for momentum," Cantlay said. "It was a nice putt to make, especially being out of position on that hole. And I'll take that momentum into tomorrow."
It set the stage for a sprint to the FedEx Cup and its $15 million prize, with ramifications that could go even further. Still to be determined after the 2020-21 season finale concludes and the cash is doled out is PGA Tour player of the year, and Cantlay could be a big part of that conversation with a victory.
Through 54 holes, he was 20 under par with a two-shot lead over Rahm (68), and Cantlay knows he will have his hands full with a demanding course and the No. 1 player in the Official World Golf Ranking. Rahm hates losing as much as he does.
The money is a nice talking point for the top two guys on the leaderboard, and even Justin Thomas, who had a 66 and is still very much in the range of making sure this isn't a two-man race.
"I don't play the game to make money," Cantlay said. "I play the game because I want to win golf tournaments and I love doing that. And I'm in a great spot to do that tomorrow."
So is Rahm, the U.S. Open champion who was denied what seemed to be a certain victory at the Memorial Tournament in early June when he had a six-shot lead after the third round and then had to withdraw with a positive COVID-19 test.
He was four shots behind with eight holes to play Saturday, made only one birdie and still gained ground when Cantlay — who had gone 46 holes with just one bogey — made three bogeys and missed a pair of birdie chances on the back nine before ending with his big birdie.
"It was one of those days where there was a lot of in-between numbers," Rahm said. "There was a lot of three-quarters and finessing around, and certain holes I just played a little bit more conservative and didn't give myself the best chances to make putts."
Thomas, who began the Tour Championship six shots behind because of his position in the FedEx Cup standings coming into the finale, was poised for the low round of the week to get a little closer. But he pulled his tee shot on the par-5 18th, went rough to rough and had the ball 35 feet away from the cup, then three-putted for bogey by missing a five-footer. He wound up five behind.
"I can't bank on them having a bad day," Thomas said. "I just have to keep plugging along and doing my job."
No one else was closer than seven shots behind Cantlay, who began the week at 10 under after his BMW Championship victory made him the No. 1 seed.
Baylor School graduate Harris English, seeded seventh and in the hunt after the first round, struggled in the third round and was tied for 17th at 4 under in a field that was reduced to 29 players Saturday when Brooks Koepka withdrew due to a wrist injury after 13 holes. English, after an opening 65 and a 69 on Friday, had Saturday's worst score with a 75 as he bogeyed three of the first four holes and made his only birdie on the 17th, three holes after a double bogey.
Cantlay had reason to think his Sunday might have involved a little less stress. At one point, he was four shots clear and not making any mistakes that would suggest he was going anywhere but forward.
"I never panicked because I knew I had my chances," Rahm said. "I was playing the back nine great all week and was full of confidence. Hopefully I'm the one that comes tomorrow with a solid game and puts on a lot of pressure."
Rahm made only one birdie on the back nine, but Cantlay also didn't pull away — and yet his finish helped him remain confident about what's ahead.
"I thought I rolled the ball on the greens just as good as the last couple days, and my speed was good, and a few putts went in today, which was nice," he said. "So I feel like I'm in a good spot going into tomorrow, and that putt on 18 put the momentum in the right direction."
Solheim Cup starts
TOLEDO, Ohio — Europe rode a dominant performance in the alternate-shot format to surge to a 5 1/2-2 1/2 lead on the first day of the Solheim Cup.
The reigning champions in the biennial women's golf competition took 3 1/2 of a possible four points during the foursome matches and split the afternoon four-ball session for some early momentum in their push to win on U.S. soil for just the second time in the event's 31-year history.
The three-point margin tied the biggest lead after one day in the 17 editions of the Solheim Cup. The Americans led by three after the first day in both 1998 and 2017 on their way to comfortable victories.
Playing in front of a decidedly pro-American crowd at Inverness Club due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, Europe hardly looked intimidated by the stakes or the stage, hanging tough on a taut day in which seven of the eight matches made it all the way to the 18th green.