PLAYERS lead displays Scottie Scheffler’s well-rounded game
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Written by Sean Martin @PGATOURSMartin
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – When Scottie Scheffler was a kid, he was a fixture on the back of the range at Dallas’ Royal Oaks Country Club. So were PGA TOUR players like Justin Leonard, Harrison Frazar and Colt Knost. Scheffler was just one of the guys back there, albeit a bit smaller.
Knost described him as a “sponge,” absorbing the collective knowledge his elders had about the game that captivated him. Scheffler would sit on an overturned range basket and watch as the coach they all shared, Randy Smith, taught the likes of Leonard, a former Open and PLAYERS champion. But Scheffler also wasn’t afraid to mix it up with the PGA TOUR players in his midst. Short-game competitions were common, an area of the game where a kid could compete against adults. Scheffler didn’t just hold his own, however. He won a majority, often frustrating the players who made their living at the game.
“If you took all those contests, every single one of them, he’d be batting 70%. That’s from age 9 (and on) against the pros,” Smith said Saturday evening, after Scheffler had shot 65 to take a two-shot lead over Min Woo Lee into THE PLAYERS’ final round.
Scottie Scheffler's Round 3 highlights from THE PLAYERS
Scheffler is a gifted athlete, a former high-school basketball player who’s listed at 6-foot-3 and weighs 200 pounds. That frame is one reason he is among the TOUR’s longest hitters. Length is an undeniable advantage, allowing players to hit higher-lofted irons and access pins that others can’t. Scheffler ranks second in Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee this season and leads in Greens in Regulation, but length alone can’t explain Scheffler’s success, especially on the variety of venues where he has hoisted trophies in the past year.
THE PLAYERS would be Scheffler’s sixth win in the last 13 months. The venues where he has been victorious range from the wide-open (Augusta National) to the rough-lined and penal (Bay Hill), as well as the wild WM Phoenix Open, which he has won the past two years. It’s a testament to a game that isn’t defined by one outstanding characteristic. Last year, he won the Masters, was runner-up at the U.S. Open and contending at The Open before an ill-timed injury. As they say, his game travels.
Scheffler has the ball-striking skills requisite to be among the game’s elite but his scrambling may be the separator, allowing his success to not be limited to one style of course. He showed that Saturday at TPC Sawgrass, as he tries to win at a course unlike any on TOUR.
“Scottie, I would say he has a great ability to post a really good score,” world No. 1 Jon Rahm said recently. “There’s a lot of times where I've played with him and maybe it doesn't look the prettiest, but you end up the round and, oh, 67. It’s pretty remarkable.”
Scheffler’s chip-in on the second hole Saturday is example 1A, a flop shot that he improbably holed after knocking a wedge stiff on the opening hole. If he goes on to win THE PLAYERS, Scheffler’s two biggest victories will be characterized by unlikely hole-outs. He was floundering at the start of the Masters’ final round before executing a risky bump-and-run, banging his ball into a slope and watching it roll in the hole.
Saturday’s eagle vaulted Scheffler into the mix and was a reminder of the big man’s soft touch. It also was fruitful in more ways than one. Scheffler has a year-long hole-out challenge with his caddie, Ted Scott, and this chip-in clinched victory even though it’s only March.
Scottie Scheffler holes his 61-foot chip shot for eagle at THE PLAYERS
“He owes me something, but he didn't have any of it, and so he owes me. It's an IOU from Teddy,” joked Scheffler, who’ll likely earn enough for himself and Scott on Sunday to settle any debts.
This week, Scheffler is second in Greens in Regulation but also seventh in Scrambling, getting up-and-down on 10 of 13 opportunities. TPC Sawgrass is so unpredictable because it was designed to not favor any style of play and offers severe penalties for mishits. Scheffler has been able to minimize the damage, however, when he has strayed from the fairways and greens. He’s made just three bogeys this week on a course known for creating crooked numbers.
There isn’t just the water that lines so many holes (and surrounds one famous green) but also the severe slopes that create awkward lies. That unpredictability explains a list of PLAYERS champions that spans the spectrum. A player must either be so good that he can’t be overtaken by Pete Dye’s tricks or simply find himself on the right side of fortune for the week. The leaderboard entering Sunday shows that.
Scheffler just needs a top-five finish to regain the top spot in the world ranking. The six names behind him have an average world ranking of 102 and a combined two TOUR victories. Lee was one of the last men in the field. He ranked 50th in the world on the date that the top 50 earned PLAYERS invitations. Cameron Davis (2021 Rocket Mortgage Classic) and Chad Ramey (2022 Corales Puntacana Championship) are the only other TOUR winners ranked T4 or better on the leaderboard.
“I just think it's a good test tee to green,” Scheffler said about TPC Sawgrass. “I think what makes me a little nervous is the stuff kind of around. You don't really know if you're going to get a good or bad break. Anytime you're hitting fairways and greens out here it's pretty scorable, but the minute you miss a fairway, depending on where you end up in one of these little hollows or pot bunkers or something like that you can get in weird spots pretty quick.”
One foot can be the difference between a penalty drop or unplayable lie. Players are threading a fine line on every hole. That was illustrated on 13, where Scheffler saved par after his tee shot stopped within inches of the penalty area. There was a par save from the pine straw on No. 15, an up-and-down for birdie on the 16 and a closing birdie on the final hole that gave him a two-shot lead entering Sunday.
Scheffler’s left miss off the tee was concerning enough that he visited the range after Saturday’s round to straighten it out, but Saturday’s 10th hole illustrated his ability to recover from his mistakes. He got up-and-down from 30 yards there to save par. A forecast for gusty conditions in the afternoon will only add another variable at TPC Sawgrass.
Scheffler appears to have what it takes to handle any challenge, however.
Sean Martin is a senior editor for the PGA TOUR. He is a 2004 graduate of Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo. Attending a small school gave him a heart for the underdog, which is why he enjoys telling stories of golf's lesser-known players. Follow Sean Martin on Twitter.