Scottie Scheffler keeps chaos at arm’s length in PLAYERS win
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Regains world No. 1 with sixth TOUR title at TPC Sawgrass
Written by Sean Martin @PGATOURSMartin
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – The second law of thermodynamics, simply stated, says that the level of disorder in the universe is steadily growing greater. Chaos is increasing.
On an annual basis, THE PLAYERS Championship serves as a microcosm of this principle. As the week progresses, and the conditions grow more difficult, suddenly the water hazards and pot bunkers become more intimidating and the targets start to shrink. Players laugh as they aim at the Island Green on a Wednesday. Their body pulses with cortisol when they see it on a Sunday.
Names like Len Mattiace, Paul Goydos and Sean O’Hair are permanent parts of PLAYERS lore because of the dramatic ways in which they suffered at the hands of the Stadium Course. No matter what the leaderboard looks like entering the final round, uncertainty prevails until the final putt.
This year looked like it could be an exception. The tournament’s trademark theatrics seemed like they could be absent after the reigning PGA TOUR Player of the Year, Scottie Scheffler, had built a two-shot lead through 54 holes. His six closest pursuers had an average world ranking of 102. Scheffler was the undoubted alpha on the leaderboard.
Scottie Scheffler dominates to win THE PLAYERS
He’d recently earned his fifth PGA TOUR title in the last 13 months and seemed to be in the midst of another hot streak like the one he produced last spring, one that vaulted him to No. 1 in the world ranking and to his first major championship.
But as Scheffler started Sunday’s final round slowly, scratching his way to six pars and a bogey over the first seven holes, his lead came under assault from myriad directions. Hideki Matsuyama made six birdies in an eight-hole stretch. Max Homa played the first three holes of the back nine in 4 under par. Viktor Hovland made four birdies in a five-hole stretch starting at No. 9. And Tyrrell Hatton birdied his last five holes to shoot the first back-nine 29 on a Sunday at TPC Sawgrass.
When Scheffler’s tee shot on the par-3 eighth trickled onto a grassy slope lining a greenside bunker, it looked like his slide may continue. But what wasn’t discernible at the time is that the placement of Scheffler’s tee shot was a cunning decision based on intimate knowledge of the course. Scheffler and his caddie, Ted Scott, knew that being pin-high would leave a difficult par save because of the amount of slope in the green. He’d have a much better chance to make par if his approach shot was short of the hole, even if it wasn’t on the green.
“If I wasn't playing that smart, I would have been in a really tough position,” Scheffler said after his round. Instead, he was left with what he called “a very gettable up-and-down.”
As Scheffler surveyed the shot, watching from outside the ropes was the man who’s coached Scheffler since he was a short kid wearing long pants to emulate the TOUR pros he idolized. Randy Smith could see in Scheffler’s eyes that the next shot was going in. He saw Scheffler surveying the break of the green, picking out a landing spot and even a small smile that Scheffler directed toward his caddie.
“There’s a good chance it’s going to go in the hole,” Smith thought. He was correct, predicting the shot that started the stretch where Scheffler did, indeed, take control of THE PLAYERS Championship. The chip-in on eight was the first of five consecutive birdies that Scheffler used in a final-round 69 that gave him a five-shot win over Tyrrell Hatton. Scheffler was three ahead at the turn and his lead increased to six by the time he birdied No. 12.
Scottie Scheffler chips in for birdie at THE PLAYERS
“I wanted to get as big of a lead as I could,” Scheffler said, aware that any PLAYERS champion must pass through 17 and 18. He exhaled when his tee shot on 17 hit the green, knowing that his work was all but done. Even though his lead grew as big as a half-dozen on the back nine, Scheffler told Scott that he was exhausted as he walked down the final fairway.
The victory, Scheffler’s second in his last four starts, moved him back to No. 1 in the world and third in the FedExCup standings. He joined Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus as the only players to simultaneously hold the Masters and PLAYERS titles.
Like his win last year at Augusta National, a greenside hole-out played an important part of his final round. It’s a testament to Scheffler’s soft hands and a short game that offers a strong complement to his elite ball-striking. At the Masters, Scheffler banged a bump-and-run into the slope fronting the third green to grow his lead to three strokes, his eventual winning margin.
Scheffler’s chip-in Sunday came a day after he holed a touchy flop shot for eagle on the second hole. His short-game acumen started at Royal Oaks Country Club in Dallas, where Scheffler studied under Smith and practiced alongside TOUR pros like Justin Leonard, Harrison Frazar and Colt Knost. The short game was the one area where a little kid could compete against pros, and Scheffler would drive the players who plied their trade at this game crazy by beating them in chipping contests. Smith estimates that Scheffler won 70% of those contests from 9 years old and up.
The variety of courses he’s conquered in his six wins over the past 13 months is a testament to a game with no discernible weaknesses. He’s second in Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee this season and first in Greens in Regulation (he also led the TOUR in that stat last season). He’s won at places ranging from Alister MacKenzie’s artistic creation at Augusta National, where wide fairways allow players to plot their own path, to the penal Pete Dye design of TPC Sawgrass, where potential disaster awaits any shot that strays from short grass. Scheffler has won in stroke play and match play, on courses wide and narrow, short and long.
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“He’s more of an artist,” Smith said. “You give him this canvas, he wants to paint on it. That’s the thing. He’s not a one-dimensional player.”
Pulling off an exceptionally difficult shot will elicit an exclamation like, “Look at that. That was sick,” Smith said. “That goes back to the enjoyment he has playing the game.”
Scheffler said Sunday that he also enjoys conquering difficult conditions, something that his record in major championships attests to. He enjoys the challenge of saving par and recovering from the inevitable imperfect shot. Scheffler ranked in the top five of Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee, Approach-the-Green and Around-the-Green this week. No one hit more greens than him (54 of 72, 75%) and he was fourth in scrambling, getting up-and-down 13 of the 18 times he missed the green. Scheffler’s five bogeys matched the fewest made this week, and he didn’t make a score of double-bogey or worse.
“Around this place that's really, really … hard to do,” Scheffler said about making just a handful of bogeys. “That's probably what I'm most proud of.”
There may not be a player on TOUR better suited to handle the inherent imperfections of the game, a trait that bodes well in the game’s biggest tournaments where bogeys are inevitable. The man who admitted that his fears before the final round of last year’s Masters drove him to tears is a man not afraid to confront his weaknesses. He talks often about not being defined by his golf score, which keeps him from catastrophizing when bad shots do happen.
“I had some times throughout the week where I didn't feel like I was swinging my best or playing at 100%,” Scheffler said, “and then I would just kind of wait and pick my moments.”
Chaos often reigns at TPC Sawgrass. On Sunday, Scottie Scheffler did instead.
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.