Dustin Johnson is 18 holes away from a fittingly triumphant end to his 2015-16 season on the PGA Tour.
He’s also potentially 18 holes from a bitterly disappointing conclusion to his best season on tour.
Johnson shot a 1-under-par 69 Saturday in the third round of the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club and is tied for the lead at 8-under 202 with Kevin Chappell heading into Sunday’s final round.
A win would give the Coastal Carolina alumnus his tour-leading fourth win of the season, the season-long FedExCup title and $11.53 million with the combined first-place payouts for both the tournament and points competition.
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“It would mean a great deal. It would definitely cap off a great season, you know,” Johnson said. “It’s definitely a championship I haven’t won before, the Tour Championship or the FedExCup championship. So it would be two great championships to add to the résumé. I would be honored to stand there at the end and hold up either one of the trophies.”
But with Rory McIlroy’s 4-under 66 Saturday, the scenario arose Saturday that would leave Johnson trophy-less.
McIlroy moved into a tie for third place just two shots behind the co-leaders, and a McIlroy win and Johnson tie for second or worse would give McIlroy the lucrative titles sweep.
“There’s a lot of scenarios that could happen, but I’m still going to go out and try to shoot as low a score as possible,” Johnson said.
McIlroy’s only win on tour this year is the Deutsche Bank Championship, but because it is one of the four playoff events, the four-time major champion has enough FedExCup points to spoil Johnson’s reward for being the tour’s most consistent player this season.
McIlroy worked on a swing adjustment on the range Friday evening and hit 17 of 18 greens in regulation in his bogey-free 66 Saturday.
“It gets me closer to what I need to do,” McIlroy said. “I need to go out and play a very similar, if not better, round of golf tomorrow to have a chance. I think, first and foremost, I just need to try and win this golf tournament, and whatever happens after that happens. It would just be great to try to win the Tour Championship, and if the chips fall my way, then so be it.”
Johnson seeks to become the first player atop the FedExCup points standings entering the Tour Championship to win the tournament since Tiger Woods in the inaugural FedExCup Playoffs in 2007.
Johnson reached 10 under in the third round with his fourth birdie of the round on the 12th hole and opened up a four-shot lead before consecutive bogeys on 13 and 14 and a messy bogey on the par-4 17th dropped him to 7 under and a shot behind Chappell.
The back-nine bogeys and double bogey all came after drives into right rough or tree lines. On 17, Johnson’s second shot with a 9-iron clipped tree branches, leaving him 60 yards to the hole in the left rough. He came up short in the bunker and missed a 7-foot bogey putt.
He bounced back with a birdie on the 587-yard par-5 ninth, ripping a 356-yard drive to the edge of a water hazard, then getting up and down from a front bunker with a 75-foot shot to 4 feet.
“I like my position. I feel like I’m playing really well,” Johnson said. “So I need to go out tomorrow and do the same thing I did today, just get off to a good start and hopefully try to finish off a little better. I thought I played pretty well, just a couple of loose drives on the back side.”
McIlroy appears to be Johnson’s only legitimate threat to the FedExCup title.
Johnson was one of five players who entered the Tour Championship guaranteed the FedExCup title if they won. Jason Day withdrew Friday, leaving Patrick Reed, Adam Scott and Paul Casey, and only Casey is within eight shots of the lead, in a tie for seventh at 3-under 207.
Other than Casey and McIlroy, the other five players either in or within five shots of the lead all need Johnson to finish outside the top eight.
So Chappell has almost no chance to capture the FedExCup title, but he can claim his first PGA Tour victory in six years on tour.
Chappell made par on his first 11 holes before chipping in for birdie on the 12th and adding a birdie on the 17th hole to take the outright lead temporarily and shoot a tidy 68. He has made just one bogey in 54 holes.
“I really fought hard, and the chip-in at 12, as you saw, kind of got me fired up a little bit,” Chappell said. “I think that was the glue that kind of kept the round together. I was able to find a little rhythm coming home, had some good looks. Obviously, made one on 17, and here we are.”
Three of Chappell’s five career runner-up finishes have come this season at the RSM Classic in November, Arnold Palmer Invitational in March and Players Championship in May. He also finished third at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in July.
“Coming close so many times this year and not getting a win yet, you know, it fuels me,” Chappell said. “I really look forward to taking those lessons I’ve learned from those experiences and applying them tomorrow and seeing what that adds up to.”
Johnson, who made six birdies Saturday including three straight on holes 4-6, will rely on his experiences from closing out three wins this year and 12 in his career, including the BMW Championship two weeks ago.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence going into tomorrow, and I know I can get it done out here,” Johnson said. “I’ve won quite a few times out here, so that definitely helps. It’s definitely an advantage, I think. But you’ve still got to go out and play some really good golf.”