Schauffele stood at 10 under following the opening round of the Tour Championship on Thursday; he the day at 4 under with the PGA Tour’s staggered scoring system for the final event of the season and FedEx Cup Playoffs.
Schauffele had a bogey-free round of 6-under 64, which was good enough to wipe out FedEx Cup points leader Justin Thomas‘ six-shot advantage over him.
Schauffele, Thomas and Brooks Koepka (who started the day three shots behind Thomas) tied for the 18-hole lead at 10-under. Rory McIlroy made up four shots in the first round and is only one shot back at 9-under.
“You know, I have no idea how this whole thing works,” Schauffele joked. “You know, we have a number. We have a seeding. I mean, that’s how I’m taking it. I think everyone needed help from J.T. If J.T. went out and shot a pair of 65s, I don’t think the Tour would be very happy, and I don’t think the rest of the field would be happy.”
What was perceived as a big advantage for Thomas — he started the tournament with at least a two-shot lead over every other player in the field — didn’t prove to be much help at all because of the way he played in the first 18 holes.
Thomas had two bogeys and one double bogey with four birdies. He hit only six of 14 fairways.
“Coming in six shots back, I have a lot less pressure than J.T. does,” Schauffele said. “J.T. has a two-shot lead [going into the tournament]. Everyone’s assuming he should just start running away with it. It’s a hard golf course. You can play great golf and shoot even par, 1 under, and vice versa.”
Over the previous 12 years of the FedEx Cup Playoffs, the PGA Tour used various forms of point resets to set the field for the season finale. The new system is designed to give players on top of the points list a head start on the leaderboard.
Thomas, who battled a wrist injury for much of the season, grabbed the FedEx Cup points lead last week with a dominant victory at the BMW Championship at Medinah. He started the Tour Championship at 10 under before even hitting his first tee shot.
Patrick Cantlay, who was runner-up at the BMW Championship, started at 8-under. Koepka, who won the PGA Championship and finished tied for fourth or better in the other three majors, was still third in FedEx Cup points and started at 7-under. Jason Kokrak, the 30th and final player in the East Lake field, started at even par.
With $45 million in bonus money at stake, including $15 million for the winner, it seemed like an unfair edge.
But that wasn’t exactly the case.
“I think people understood even before you started the day,” said Kuchar, who began the opening round at 4-under and shot a 4-under 66. “You put me six shots back going into Sunday’s final round, I feel like I’ve got a chance. You put me six back with 72 holes to go, I’ve definitely got a chance.”
With the way Schauffele played on Thursday, he definitely has a chance to win the FedEx Cup Playoffs for the first time — and spoil Thomas’ moment for the second time in his career.
Schauffele, a four-time winner on the PGA Tour, picked up five shots through the first 11 holes and six through the first 16. When Thomas hit his tee shot into the water and made double bogey on the par-3 15th, Schauffele moved into the lead.
Schauffele made a 26-foot putt for a birdie on No. 5 and a 13-footer for another birdie on 11. The 25-year-old from La Jolla, California, needed only 27 putts and hit 15 of 18 greens in regulation.
Schauffele said his plan was to avoid looking at scoreboards to see what Thomas and others were doing to concentrate on his own round.
“It was a good day,” he said. “I told myself I’d keep my head down all of Thursday. The plan is to keep it down [Friday] and most of Saturday. It seemed to work today.”
As a PGA Tour rookie in 2017, Schauffele won the Tour Championship with a birdie on the 72nd hole, beating Thomas by one stroke. Thomas still collected $10 million for being the season-long points leader.
If Schauffele can maintain his form over the final 54 holes, there might be much more at stake when he reaches the 18th green on Sunday.
“I think it would be very nerve-racking,” he said. “It’s not too often in your life you have four- or five-footers for $10 million.”
At least he won’t be staring up at Thomas when he tees off on Friday.
“It’s just Thursday,” Schauffele said. “I’d love to be a thorn in someone’s side on Sunday, you can say that much.”