Kevin Chappell will be keeping a good eye on his playing partner Saturday in the third round of the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club.
The obvious reason is Dustin Johnson is the man he’s chasing.
Johnson shot a 3-under-par 67 Friday and holds a one-stroke lead over Chappell at 7-under 133 through two rounds in the PGA Tour’s $8.5 million season-ending event.
But there’s more to it than that.
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Chappell wants to see why Johnson is in the lead, and why he’s been in the lead so frequently this season.
“I promise you, I will be watching Dustin. He’s the best player in the world right now, and it’s an opportunity for me to see where my game is,” Chappell said. “There’s a golf tournament going on, and I have a chance to win that. That’s the ultimate goal. But I also have a chance to see why he’s the best player in the world right now, and I look forward to taking advantage of that opportunity.”
Johnson is seeking his second straight win and fourth victory of the season, and all the lucrative spoils that will come with it – primarily the $11.53 million he’d collect as Tour Championship winner ($1.53 million) and FedExCup champion ($10 million).
The Coastal Carolina alumnus is four shots clear of Kevin Kisner and Hideki Matsuyama, who are tied for third at 3-under 137, after making five birdies and two bogeys Saturday.
“For the next few days, I just need to keep playing like I am,” Johnson said. “If I keep playing like I am, I’m going to have a good shot to win on Sunday.”
Only 10 players are under par on an East Lake layout that is playing narrow with high rough and very undulating greens.
“It’s rare you get a straight putt, and when you do, I constantly catch myself second-guessing it because you see putts with so much break out here, especially when you get it close to pin high on some of these holes,” Chappell said.
Johnson began the second round in a three-way tie for the lead at 4 under. He birdied the 432-yard par-4 fifth hole with a 326-yard drive and wedge to 6 feet and the uphill 525-yard par-5 sixth with a chip to 7 feet.
He added birdies at the 412-yard par-4 10th with a wedge to 8 feet, and 184-yard par-3 11th with an 8-iron to 10 feet to reach 8 under.
Johnson’s first hiccup of the day came on the par-4 12th, where he found a bunker to the right of the pin from 110 yards and missed an 18-foot par putt.
Prior to the bogey, Johnson had gotten up and down for par on eight of the nine occasions he missed a green in regulation. He finished 8-for-11 in the scrambling category after another bogey on the 17th hole.
Johnson saved par with a two-putt from 75 feet on the par-4 13th after a drive into sparse trees to the right of the fairway, and he got back to 8 under with a birdie on the 454-yard par-4 16th with a 320-yard drive and approach to 13 feet.
But he gave the stroke back on the par-4 17th, where a drive into deep rough to the right of the fairway forced a layup short of a wide bunker fronting the green. Johnson hit a curling chip to 6 feet but his par putt lipped out.
“The rough here is definitely the toughest it’s been since I’ve played,” Johnson said. “It’s deep, and it sits on the bottom every time. You know, you can’t really advance the ball. … You have the lie out on 17. I did good to get it to where I did, which was 20 yards short. That was pretty good. I hit that as hard as I could to get it to go there.”
Johnson finished with a par on the par-5 18th hole.
“Three under around here, I’m always going to be pleased with that,” Johnson said. “Finishing 5-5 isn’t the ideal finish, but overall it’s another good day.”
Johnson hopes Chappell will be as impressed with his game Saturday as his playing partner was Friday.
“D.J.’s playing so well,” said Kisner of Aiken, who is Johnson’s age of 32 and has competed against him since junior golf. “I’ve played with him for years and he’s hitting it as good as I’ve ever seen him hit it. He’s a special talent and he’s unbelievable when he’s on. If he keeps hitting it like that it’s going to be tough.”
Chappell has the best chance to catch Johnson.
The 2008 NCAA champion is still seeking his first PGA Tour victory and has three runner-up finishes this year in the RSM Classic, Arnold Palmer Invitational and Players Championship – tournaments won by Kisner by six strokes, and world No. 1 Jason Day by one and four strokes.
“It seems like I like going against the hot player at the time,” said Chappell, who has five runners-up since his rookie year of 2011, “but maybe the third time’s the charm.”
Day withdrew after eight holes Friday citing a strained ligament in his lower right back and muscle spasms, which makes Johnson even more of a favorite to win the PGA Tour’s 2016 Player of the Year award, which is determined through a player vote.
Day is the world’s top-ranked player and Johnson is No. 2. They are the only players with three wins this year, though Johnson has been more consistent and joined Tiger Woods as the only players to capture a major, World Golf Championships title and FedExCup Playoffs event in the same year.
The Players Championship is one of Day’s three wins, and he was well aware of how his season stacked up against Johnson’s entering the Tour Championship. He figured he had to win Sunday to sway the vote in his favor.
“He’s won a major. I’ve won a The Players Championship,” Day said. “Obviously, major championships are held a lot higher, but I feel like The Players championships are right behind the major championships. I know that he’s had 14 top 10s, which is tremendous. I’ve only had 10. If I win four times and win the FedExCup, I’m hoping that pushes me over the line if I win.”
Johnson can also creep closer to the world’s top ranking with a win, and add to the already significant distance between him and No. 3 Rory McIlroy.
“I would love to become world No. 1,” Johnson said. “Obviously, I need to finish off this weekend, and we’ll see what happens.”
Tee times will be early Saturday to accommodate Notre Dame football coverage on NBC, so Chappell and Johnson will tee off at 11:30 a.m. and should finish their round by 3:30 p.m.