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Dustin Johnson whittles down rivals at Tour Championship

Dustin Johnson hits his tee shot on the 11th hole during the second round of the Tour Championship on Sept. 23, 2016 in Atlanta.

Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Dustin Johnson is playing better than anyone in the world and Kevin Chappell can't wait to watch him at the Tour Championship.

Even if that means having to beat him.

Johnson powered his way down the fairways and occasionally out of the brutal rough at East Lake on Friday for a three-under 67, giving him a one-shot lead over Chappell and moving him one round closer to the $10-million (U.S.) FedEx Cup prize.

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The U.S. Open champion is on a different level at the moment.

Even on a demanding test such as East Lake this year – only 10 players remain under par – Johnson is hitting his driver long and straight. His wedge game has gone from a weakness to a strength. A new putter he put in play two weeks ago, when he won the BMW Championship, is giving him a better feel for alignment.

Small wonder that this was his seventh straight round at 68 or better during the FedEx Cup playoffs. "The game is never easy. I wish it was," Johnson said. "Obviously, I'm playing good right now. I've got a lot of confidence in my game. Every week, I feel like I bring the same game, which is nice. But I put in a lot of work to get to where I am."

Johnson was at seven-under 203.

Chappell, one of two players at the Tour Championship who has yet to win on the PGA Tour, was just as solid, even if it doesn't look as spectacular. He has made only one bogey in 36 holes, quite a feat on a course in which the Bermuda rough is so punishing that balls sink to the ground and sometimes can't be seen from a foot away. He shot a 68 and will be in the final group of a playoff event for the second time this year.

Kevin Kisner (70) and Hideki Matsuyama (71) were four shots behind, while Rory McIlroy overcame another rough start on the front nine to post a 70. He was in the group five shots behind, which isn't much of a deficit at the halfway point except for Johnson being the one they have to chase.

If nothing else, Johnson all but eliminated nearly everyone not among the top five seeds vying for the FedEx Cup. McIlroy is No. 6 and still has a chance, though he would have to win the Tour Championship and Johnson would have to finish third.

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"I need to win and I just need someone to play as good as Dustin this week," McIlroy said.

Jason Day is out of the picture. The world's No. 1 player withdrew in the middle of a round at the second straight tournament, citing the same nagging back issues he hopes will be cured with rest.

With Day withdrawing, Johnson won the points-based PGA player of the year award and is likely to win the player vote as PGA Tour player of the year because of his three victories, with perhaps another to follow.

But there is still work ahead of him and that starts with Chappell.

"I promise you, I'll be watching Dustin," Chappell said. "He's the best player in the world right now, and it's an opportunity for me to see where my game is. 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."

Chappell has been a runner-up three times this season and keeps running into the wrong guys – Kisner at Sea Island, Day at Bay Hill and the Players Championship. He also was in the mix at the TPC Boston until McIlroy pulled away.

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"It seems I like going against the hot player at the time," he said.

Russell Knox matched the low score of the tournament with a 66 that allowed him to get back under par at one-under 139, along with Justin Thomas, who is still hopeful of a Ryder Cup pick at the end of the week.

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