Will the drama that the PGA Tour hoped for when it flipped the nines at East Lake Golf Club for this year’s Tour Championship materialize in Sunday’s final round?
The nines were changed – the front nine became the back nine and vice versa – primarily to change the finishing hole from a tough par-3 to a par-5 that might create a more exciting finish.
Dustin Johnson, for one, appreciates the change.
The 18th has a downhill tee shot and uphill second shot over water to a well-protected green. Johnson has made two birdies and a par on the hole in the first two rounds, when it has played 31, 34 and 13 yards shorter than its scorecard yardage of 600 yards. It has a scoring average through three rounds of 4.545 with two eagles and 42 birdies.
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“I think they’re going to play it a little bit shorter than they have in years past,” Johnson said. “If you drive it in the fairway you’re going to have a chance to go for it. It’s still a tough second shot, but you’ve got a chance to make an eagle on the last hole, which coming down the stretch, that’s always going to be exciting. It’ll just be a little more exciting than 18, the old 18, which is a par 3, a very difficult par 3 at that.
“You know, you’ll see a lot of birdies, maybe some eagles. So that will be a lot of fun.”
Both Johnson and Chappell have used the new front nine to get off to good starts, as they have made just one bogey combined in three rounds on the front nine and both have played it 7 under.
“Man, that front nine is really easy, I guess,” Chappell joked.
Closing the door
Dustin Johnson has done pretty well in his career with either a share of or outright 54-hole leads.
Part of the reason is he has won three events that were shortened to 54 holes because of inclement weather and course conditions – the 2013 Tournament of Champions, 2011 Barclays and 2009 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.
In tournaments that have extended through 72 holes, he has converted 54-hole outright or shared leads three out of seven times at the 2016 BMW Championship, 2013 WGC-HSBC Champions and 2010 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
The four times he failed to convert came at the 2015 U.S. Open (he tied for second), 2014 Tournament of Champions (tied for sixth), 2011 WGC-Cadillac Championship (second) and 2010 U.S. Open (tied for eighth).
Two eagles land
Charl Schwartzel made a quick jump up the leaderboard with consecutive eagles on holes 6 and 7 to move inside the top five at the time and go from 1 over to 3 under.
The South African and 2011 Masters champion hit 5-iron from 220 yards to 9 feet on the par-5 sixth and holed a 142-yard approach shot on the par-4 seventh.
“That was exciting,” Schwartzel said. “… That was nice. That doesn’t happen.”
A double bogey on the 14th hole kept Schwartzel from making up more ground, and he’s tied for seventh and five shots back at 3-under 207.
“I felt comfortable. I just went to sleep on the back nine and made a bad double bogey on 14,” Schwartzel said.
Nerves not gone
In spite of becoming a better finisher this year, Johnson said he still feels nerves both at the start of a round and when he’s in contention down the stretch.
“I still get nervous on the first tee every time,” Johnson said. “Ryder Cup, first tee here, any tournament. But it’s in a good way. It’s not like a bad nervous. You know, just because it means something to me. The day you’re not nervous on the first tee is kind of when it doesn’t mean anything to you.
“I’m nervous every time coming down the stretch on the tournament when I’ve got a chance to win.”
Asked when he last recalls having negative nervousness, Johnson pointed to the final round of the 2010 U.S. Open, where he took a three-shot lead into the final round and shot an 82 to tie for eighth.
“Probably that Sunday at Pebble Beach, where I shot 100. It felt like 100,” he said.
A breakout year
Kevin Chappell, who enters the final round tied for the lead with Dustin Johnson at 8-under 202, has yet to win in the 2015-2016 season. But it has still been a breakout season for the 2008 NCAA champion who had Galivants Ferry native Michael Maness as a caddie for 2 1/2 years thought May 2015 before Maness took a job in insurance.
The 2008 NCAA champion is in his Tour Championship debut in his sixth year on tour at 15th in FedExCup points. Three of his 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.
Chappell tried to explain why he believes he has been able to contend so often this year.
“I guess the streaks have been longer,” Chappell said. “It’s obvious that when I’m good, I’m good. Sometimes that goes away quickly. I might play nine good holes in a tournament, it gets me near the lead, and it slowly goes away. But this year it’s been I’ll play 36 really good holes.
“I’ve been able to keep momentum when I’ve had it. I’ve got to give credit to my short game and improving that, but also making sure that my ball striking is always where it needs to be because I’ve learned that you rely on your strengths, and if your strengths are just average, then it’s going to be really hard to compete out here.”
Win or lose Sunday, he’ll take more confidence into next season.
“I think [a win] would validate some of the hard work I’ve put in, myself and my team,” Chappell said. “Even if tomorrow doesn’t go the way I want it to, I’m really proud of the year I’ve had, and I can look back on the 2015-16 season as a great success. It’s taken me to places I’ve never been before.”