ATLANTA — The final hole at East Lake brought two strange sights Saturday at 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 it sank to the bottom.
Then, Dustin Johnson reached his drive and could see the entire golf ball in the grass. It was in the first cut, 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 he hit 5-iron to 30 feet for a two-putt birdie and an even-par 70, allowing to escape with a one-shot lead over Sungjae Im at the halfway point of the chase for the FedEx Cup and the $15 million prize.
Johnson headed straight to the range to try to figure out why he hit only two fairways, though he was satisfied to have so few chances and still stay in front.
“Two different golf courses if you’re playing from the fairway or playing from the rough,” Johnson said. “Playing from the fairway, you can attack the course, you can shoot a good score. 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, 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 behind, 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 player 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 at the start of the tournament and run away with it.
Johnson, with rounds of 67-70 along with starting at 10 under as the No. 1 seed in the FedEx Cup, was at 13 under.
Im, the budding star from South Korea whose game had gone lukewarm coming out of the three-month shutdown, 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. Another big move came from PGA champion Collin Morikawa, whose 66 put him four shots out of the lead.
Johnson hit the fairway on the first and fifth holes — both pars. He still managed a birdie on No. 8 when he drove into a bunker, came up short of the green and chipped in from 40 feet, 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 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.
Justin 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 bogey and a 71.
Jon Rahm again was keeping stride with Johnson until he found the water off the tee at the par-3 15th and made double bogey, followed by a wild drive that led to bogey on the 16th. He shot a 74, nine shots worse than his opening round. That left him four shots behind at 9 under.
That’s what was so maddening for Thomas, who felt like he was hitting it well enough from tee to green. He ranks last in the 30-man field in putting, 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 6-foot par putt swirled in and out of the cup, and Thomas gave it a sarcastic thumbs-up.
Rahm was as frustrated as ever, mainly because he couldn’t capitalize when he was in the fairway and felt it was another round at East Lake that would cost him. Now, however, he’s still only four shots behind with 36 holes remaining and $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.”