Originally Published: September 24, 2017 5:58 a.m.
ATLANTA — Paul Casey had an easy time keeping it simple even as he was presented all the scenarios, projections and possibilities of winning $10 million for the FedEx Cup.
"They went in one ear and out the other," Casey said. "All I know is that none of them matter if I don't win. So I have to win."
And for a guy who has gone more than eight years and 143 starts on the PGA Tour since his last victory, winning the Tour Championship was his sole objective when he left East Lake on Saturday evening with a two-shot lead.
Casey closed out the front nine by twice having to get up-and-down for bogey, and then he kept a clean card the rest of the way. He holed a 40-foot birdie putt from the back of the 17th green that carried him to a 5-under 65, giving him another chance to finally have something to show for his stellar performance in the FedEx Cup playoffs.
He lost a three-shot lead at the TPC Boston a year ago. He ran into Dustin Johnson at Crooked Stick. Six times in his last eight FedEx Cup playoff events, he has finished among the top five. And he's still trying to earn that first PGA Tour victory since the 2009 Houston Open.
At stake Sunday is not only a chance to end the drought, but to take home the richest payoff in golf — a $10 million bonus, with $9 million paid out immediately.
"It would be amazing," the 40-year-old from England said. "Yes, I have given that thought. And then I try not to think about it."
Casey was at 12-under 198.
Kevin Kisner had a 64, his best round at East Lake by three shots, and still rued too many birdie chances that burned the edge of the cup. He left East Lake in a hurry without too much reflection on his round or his chances so he could take a helicopter to Georgia's football game.
"You can't win the FedEx Cup if you're not at the Tour Championship," Kisner said. "And to have a chance on Sunday is all we can ask for."
Also two shots behind was Xander Schauffele, the PGA Tour rookie who looks comfortable on a big stage against some players he hasn't had the occasion to meet this year. The 24-year-old from San Diego made it into the Tour Championship by playing his final six holes in 6-under par last week at the BMW Championship. He showed that explosive scoring again in the third round at East Lake for a 65.
"I had nothing to lose last week, and I have absolutely nothing to lose this week," he said.
The top five seeds in the FedEx Cup only have to win to claim's golf's biggest payoff, and those numbers are dwindling.
Justin Thomas, the No. 2 seed and a five-time winner this year, was tied for the lead and played in the final group with Casey. He fell back with a three-shot swing on the par-5 sixth hole when Casey made eagle and Thomas missed the fairway and chopped his way to a bogey. Thomas made a double bogey on No. 14 from another wild tee shot and a three-putt from about 35 feet.
Two birdies over the last three holes gave him a 70, and he was still in the mix at five shots behind.
Jordan Spieth, dressed all in black, opened the back nine with consecutive bogeys, and then missed a 3-foot birdie putt on No. 12. He put together three birdies to salvage a 69, though he was eight shots behind. Even so, as the No. 1 seed, the FedEx Cup was not out of reach. Spieth could still move up the leaderboard, though he likely would need someone other than Casey to win, and to stay near Thomas on the leaderboard.
"Unfortunately, I'm not really in control of my own destiny at this point, but I'll go out tomorrow, try and shoot a really solid round of golf and then do some cheerleading," Spieth said.
No. 5 seed Jon Rahm had to settle for a 70 and was six shots back. Dustin Johnson (No. 3) had a 69 and will be paired again Sunday with Spieth in a tie for 13th.
Casey wants to leave town with at least one trophy.
His last victory was the KLM Open on the European Tour in 2014. His biggest victory to date was the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, England, in 2009, the year in which he won three times and rose to No. 3 in the world.