Schauffele closes in on Scheffler

WASHINGTON (AFP) — Tokyo Olympic champion Xander Schauffele fired a seven-under par 63 to charge within two strokes of top-ranked Scottie Scheffler after Friday’s second round of the US PGA’s Tour Championship.

Scheffler, the reigning Masters champion, began the day with a five-stroke lead and stretched his edge as high as eight in the season-ending showdown at East Lake in Atlanta.

But fellow American Schauffele trimmed the gap to six strokes with a birdie at the 10th hole, matched playing partner Scheffler with a birdie at the 12th, then roared in with birdies at 16 and 17 and a closing eagle at the par-5 18th.

That left Scheffler, who shot 66, clinging to the lead at 19-under after 36 holes with Schauffele on 17-under and Spain’s Jon Rahm a distant third on 13-under after his own 63.

“He played some fantastic golf, especially at the end there,” Scheffler said of Schauffele. “It should be a fun battle the next few days.”

Schauffele wasn’t overly excited about his late attack given there were 36 weekend holes ahead.

“It’s only day two,” Schauffele said. “It’s nice to pick up some shots late, but it’s just a positioning battle going into Sunday.”

“It would be better to be two shots ahead. But it’s just kind of head down. There’s a lot at stake here and staying present is going to be the hardest thing.”

Scheffler began the unique event Thursday with a two-stroke lead based on his overall advantage in the season points chase, starting on 10-under par with Schauffele third overall at 6-under as they began.

The staggered scoring system means whoever fires the week’s low 72-hole total will not necessarily win the $18 million top prize on offer from the FedEx Cup playoffs.

Scheffler, who hadn’t taken a PGA title when the year began, won four in two months capped by his first major title at Augusta National in April.

He could complete an incredible season by capturing the $18 million FedEx Cup playoff crown on Sunday.

“If he goes out and posts a low number, we’re going to need a miraculous weekend to catch him,” Rahm said.

Scheffler said he was happy with his round but felt he could have gone lower.

“I hit the ball nicely,” Scheffler said. “I gave myself a lot of looks. I hit a few putts out there I didn’t love but for the most part I hit a lot of good putts.”

“A few more of those go in and the scorecard looks a little bit different but overall, 4-under with no bogeys is a pretty good round.”

Schauffele, who missed only one fairway Friday, sank a birdie putt at 16 from just inside 12 feet and had the closest approach at 17 to just outside four feet to set up a birdie.

At 18, Scheffler’s tee shot soared way left and he scrambled to make par while Schauffele dropped his second shot, a 4-iron from 234 yards, only five feet from the cup then made his eagle putt.

Rahm birdied five of the first eight holes to reach second on 11-under and rolled in a birdie from 14 feet at the 12th, then sandwiched birdies at 16 and 18 around a bogey at 17.

“When you start missing fairways it’s hard to get chances at birdies. Luckily I was able to hit a couple down the stretch,” Rahm said. “I’m just trying to make sure I’m not giving away any shots.”

Defending champion Patrick Cantlay and South Korean Im Sung-jae shared fourth on 12-under, one stroke ahead of Chile’s Joaquin Niemann and two in front of four-time major winner Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland.

American Max Homa fired a PGA career-low 62, the lowest round in 15 years at East Lake and second-best ever, to stand at 9-under. He birdied five of the first eight holes and closed a bogey-free round with an eagle.

“I just felt like if I freed myself up to play, I could go play good golf,” Homa said.

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