PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – A year ago at the Masters, Scottie Scheffler bared his soul.
In one of the most revealing moments in major history, Scheffler admitted that he bawled like a baby before the final round, utterly overwhelmed by the life-changing possibilities of the day. Those mini-freakouts weren’t that rare, either: In junior and college golf, he was prescribed medication for his stomach indigestion. Leading into big tournaments, he said, he’d ache for more than a week.
“It’s something I’m used to,” he said.
Scheffler might have professed “I’m not ready” over and over to his wife that morning, but then he arrived at Augusta National, found peace inside the ropes, and performed so proficiently that he four-putted the final green and still won by three.
Perhaps it’s a sign of his growing comfort, then, that Scheffler conceded only that his Sunday morning here at The Players Championship was “tough,” as his final-round tee time drew near.
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Of course it was
There’s no course in the world that churns more stomachs than TPC Sawgrass, and Scheffler led The Players Championship by two.
Indeed, it was gut-check time, because there was at least some question whether he could meet the moment Sunday. In his ascendant career he’d converted only two-of-six opportunities when staked to the 54-hole lead. One of those misfires came last August at the Tour Championship, where he matched the PGA Tour record for the largest blown lead in the final round when he coughed up a six-shot advantage to hand the FedExCup trophy to Rory McIlroy.
“That was pretty challenging for me to handle,” Scheffler said. “It was obviously very sad and hard, and I didn’t expect things to finish that way.”
But last month, in his first chance as a frontrunner since that historic collapse, Scheffler slammed the door in his title defense at the Phoenix Open by throwing down a Sunday 65. Now, another signature moment had arrived.
“It’s just experience,” said his swing coach, Randy Smith. “He’s got a lot more experience with situations. When you’re playing out here for a living, situations come up. And if you have a library to go back on and draw it up in your mind a little bit… it’s becoming a habit to make the right decision.”
Saving an otherwise star-deprived leaderboard, Scheffler birdied two of his last three holes Saturday to snag a two-shot lead over Min Woo Lee in the Tour’s flagship event. But after the round, Scheffler retreated to the lighted range for a bit more work. It was a move that was eerily reminiscent of last year’s Masters, when Scheffler, then leading by three, hit balls under the floodlights, prompting a wave of online and on-air anxiety that he was tinkering with a winning action. But Scheffler has always viewed those post-round range sessions as a cooldown – no different than a dip in the whirlpool, or a spin on a stationary bike.
Under Smith’s watchful eye, Scheffler hit roughly 10 balls, enough to engrain a good feeling, unwind and send him into the night satisfied. For once, he reported, “I actually slept amazing last night.”
And that’s a noteworthy improvement.
“He’s put himself in this category of a future Hall of Fame guy in a 12-month span, so he’s getting a quick course in all of that,” Adam Scott said. “It is really hard, and I guess that’s where the best would say that routines over time really do help. Then it’s just another day of getting up and putting your golf shoes on and going through the process, and then that consistency leads to the same kind of stuff.”
Peers, caddy impressed with Scheffler’s achievements
If Scheffler exhibited any uneasiness upon arrival Sunday at TPC Sawgrass, it wasn’t made clear to his caddy, Ted Scott. “He shows up in a final round ready to get the job done,” Scott said, but then again, that’s a learned behavior. Scheffler has been collecting trophies – hundreds of them – since he was a Texas tot.
“When he was 7 he was wearing pants to the golf course,” Ted Scott said. “So when he was visualizing himself being in this position, he practiced his whole life to get to this spot. Maybe that’s why he’s so well equipped to keep in the spotlight.
“Like any actor in a movie, you’ve just got to learn how to get rid of all the lights and cameras, and do your job and perform. That’s what he’s doing. That’s just what he’s getting comfortable with.”
And Scheffler’s growth was on display in a final round of The Players that was tense for, oh, only about an hour.
Scheffler’s two-shot lead disappeared by the time he walked off the third green, but Lee made an unholy mess of the fourth hole – an iron tee shot into the rough, a hack-out down the fairway, then a fatted wedge that sucked off the front edge and into the water, leading to a triple bogey.
The rest of the day, no one ever drew closer than two shots.
Much like at last year’s Masters, Scheffler used a chip-in to ease his nerves and create some separation from the field. With his ball settled just outside the bunker on the par-3 eighth hole, Scheffler gripped down the shaft of his wedge and plopped his ball on the fringe. After a hard right turn, his ball dove into the cup, the hole-out kick-starting a run of five consecutive birdies that turned golf’s most stressful tournament into a snoozer.
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Before this dominant stretch began last year, “I had this idea that I had to play perfect on Sundays and hit nothing but good shots, and that’s not necessarily how golf is played,” Scheffler said. “Most of it is just managing your way around a golf course.”
So as Scheffler walked down the fairway on the 11thth hole, firmly in command, he told Scott that he didn’t want to alter his game plan – even with a huge lead, even with the winds beginning to gust, even with the watery closing stretch still to play.
“You can’t limp in on this golf course,” Scheffler said. “You’ve got to hit the shots.”
“We’re not trying to run it – we’re a quarterback trying to throw it down the field,” Ted Scott said.
And so Scheffler continued to swing with his usual impunity, forcing drivers down the throats of some of the tightest-lipped fairways on Tour. By the time he made a rare miscue, missing right off the 14th tee, it mattered little. He simply swallowed the bogey and forged ahead, five shots clear, secure if not yet totally safe.
Walking outside the ropes as his son romped to another title, to the record $4.5 million first-place check, Scheffler’s father, Scott, said he caught himself in a daze: “I said to myself, like, ‘Is he really that good in golf?’ And obviously he is. He’s not one-and-done. It’s not wow to him. He just wants to improve, and he is. He’s driven to improve.”
From a skill standpoint, Scheffler’s greatest strength is that he’s without weakness. Scheffler reminds Adam Scott of a young, swashbuckling Greg Norman. Immensely skilled. Natural. Unbothered with technical perfection.
“Younger kids can learn a lot from him,” Scott said.
Still just 26, Scheffler seems a hybrid of the best players from his era: In one 6-foot-3, 200-pound package, he possesses Brooks Koepka’s big-game bona fides; Dustin Johnson’s laconic style; Justin Thomas’ spectacular shot-shaping; and Jordan Spieth’s knack for scoring. It all adds up to a player who has won at nearly a 25% clip over the past year, all six of his titles either a major or designated event.
“There’s nothing to lose, everything to gain for him, and it’s a really nice place to be where he’s at,” Spieth said. “I’ve been there. It’s a really fun time playing golf that way.”
That’s the same word – fun – Scheffler used to describe his past year, even if he was referring strictly to his on-course performance.
He knows he might always battle a queasy stomach, a restless night, a nerve-wracked warmup. Win or lose, the uneasy feeling reminds him that it matters. That it’s worth chasing. That there’s more to achieve.
“The hard times make the good times that much sweeter,” he said.
And this has been the sweetest stretch of all.