PONTE VEDRA — When Scottie Scheffler was a boy, he spent innumerable hours hanging around the chipping green at Royal Oaks Country Club in Dallas. It was the only place, according to his coach Randy Smith, Scheffler would let his body and his brain slow down. He was constantly talking, running, buzzing with energy. Although the Legend of Scheffler often references his childhood humility, obnoxious would be a more honest description.
“As a little kid, he would get a little red and hot,” Smith said. “I said you’d better quit it now because there are some people who will really give you crap the older you get. He was outgoing, chirpy, zoom zooming everywhere. He was like the Energizer Bunny, into everything.”
It was exhausting. But when it came to chipping contests, Scheffler was fearless. He would stare down anyone who would take him on, whether it was kids his own age or the club’s PGA Tour regulars like Justin Leonard and Colt Knost.
“If you took all those contests when he was little, every single one of them, he’d be batting 70 percent from about age nine against the pros,” Smith said. “Now he’s got a couple kids doing to him what he did to them. I’ve seen [Scheffler get beat] once. He did not take it well.”
There are a few ways to look at Scheffler, who continued to make his case on Sunday that he is the best golfer in the world with a five-stroke win at The Players Championship, a win that returned him to No. 1 in the Official World Golf Rankings and earned him $4.5 million.
You can view him as brilliant but bland, a little too corporate and too genial of a player in which to emotionally invest your fandom.
Or you can grow to appreciate him for what he is, an artist with irons and wedges who — despite projecting a friendly and humble persona — burns with a quiet, competitive rage that he’s learned to channel into the biggest moments.
“Every once in a while he’ll have a bit of an explosion,” Smith said while Scheffler was inside scoring, putting his signature on a final round 69, his sixth career win. “But he’s kind of figured out that there is nothing [good about] burning up the energy inside you that you need to create the best stuff. You watch great basketball players. They get mad. Oh god, do they get mad. But it’s amazing how fast they’re right back into the heat of the action. That’s what he does. He doesn’t burn up a lot of mental energy on getting mad. Now, he may completely go off at the range. But he doesn’t do it out here.”
The Players is decidedly not a major championship (sorry Mr. Monahan). But it does always serve as a good spot to assess where pro golf stands with majors just beyond the horizon. A few storylines took shape early in the week. The absence of the players who defected for LIV was clearly felt, none more than defending champion Cam Smith. Jon Rahm even fielded a question asking if Smith should have been granted an exemption, a delightful bit of theater considering he was answering it in the PGA Tour’s Media Center surrounded by PGA Tour employees.
“I mean, yes and no,” Rahm said. “I feel like as defending champion you've earned a right. But we're talking about a very unique circumstance in the world of golf. Some players made a choice of going to a different golf league knowing that they weren't going to be allowed to play here. And yes, this is a massive event. It is very close to a major quality event, but it's still a PGA Tour event. So with that regard, no. I don't think just him should be allowed to be here.”
It also became clear that Rory McIlroy remains the game’s most interesting golfer, especially if you factor in how much he means to the sport and the ways he’s chosen to take the lead in re-shaping the PGA Tour. He spent his Tuesday morning in a 2-hour player meeting helping the Tour present the plan for 2024, a plan that creates eight designated events (all of them likely to be held without a cut) for the Top 70 players in the FedExCup standings.
“I'm not going to sit here and lie, I think the emergence of LIV or the emergence of a competitor to the PGA Tour has benefited everyone that plays elite professional golf,” McIlroy said. “I think when you've been the biggest golf league in the biggest market in the world for the last 60 years, there's not a lot of incentive to innovate. This has caused a ton of innovation at the PGA Tour, and what was quite, I would say, an antiquated system is being revamped to try to mirror where we're at in the world in the 21st century with the media landscape.”
If McIlroy holds the title as the most compelling golfer for reasons beyond the course, then Rahm continues to be the most intimidating and relentless golfer, the man you least want to see charging up the leaderboard or standing across the tee box. But neither man was able to stick around for the weekend, Rahm suffering from a stomach ailment that forced him to withdraw Friday morning, and McIlroy suffering from a driver that, of late, has made him feel similarly queasy every time it drifts offline.
“I’m ready to get back to being purely a golfer,” McIlroy admitted after 76-73 left him outside the cutline. “It’s been a busy couple weeks. Honestly, it’s been a busy six to eight months.”
Rahm and McIlroy’s early exit created an opening for some of the game’s understudies to make their case that they deserve (particularly next season) to be chasing the same rapidly-expanding purses that the superstars have earmarked for themselves. There was a lot of talk early in the week that Sawgrass was the kind of democratic test that might throw a wrench in the narrative that the Tour should be built around its stars, particularly when journeymen like Chad Ramey, Ben Griffin, and David Lingmerth surged into contention. Griffin — who quit golf and became a mortgage broker several years ago, only to return to the game — found himself playfully answering questions about interest rates while in contention at the Tour’s $25 million flagship event after he opened with a 67.
“They’re too high if you're trying to buy a house,” Griffin said. “A $500,000 house two years ago was a little bit more affordable and it's probably double the cost now on a monthly payment. I picked a good time to get out of the mortgage industry, and I don't know how, but people think I'm a wizard for timing it so perfectly.”
Even 56-year-old Jerry Kelly turned a few heads by becoming the oldest player in the history of The Players to make the cut.
“Basically I took another two or three years off my life,” Kelly said. “I’m happy where I’m at on the Champions Tour.”
But the longer the tournament went on, the clearer it was that Cinderella stories were taking a backseat to Scheffler, who ended up making a convincing argument that he — not McIlroy or Rahm — is the most complete player in the game. Scheffler nukes his driver, he can usually shape it in both directions as needed, and he is one of the best iron players on earth. It was all those chipping contests at Royal Oaks, however, that gave him hands as delicate and precise as a violinist.
“Just by eye, it looks just kind of homegrown, which I always feel like works pretty well,” said Max Homa, when asked to describe Scheffler’s short game prowess. “Jordan [Spieth’s] is kind of similar. Obviously, they have great mechanics, but it feels like they do it a different way, which means they typically own it a bit more. I feel like [Scheffler] just knows what he's going to do. He has this stabbing spinner. He's got the really good kind of soft one out of the rough. I feel like he's just very artistic in that way.”
Scheffler’s hands have, over the last 18 months, become the game’s most underrated weapon. Every time he needed his short game to rescue him this week, it was there, much like it was when he won the 2022 Masters. He made only five bogeys all week, a remarkable statistic on a course with water lurking on every hole.
“I think I just like the challenge of harder golf courses,” Scheffler said. “I found a way to choose my moments.”
Scheffler chipped in twice on the weekend — once for eagle at No. 2 on Saturday, then again for birdie at No. 8 on Sunday — each time delivering a dagger in the chest of his pursuers. His Sunday chip-in occurred when his ball came to rest in the rough left of the green, forcing Scheffler to take an awkward stance in the bunker so he could address the ball. He nipped it perfectly, letting it ride a gentle slope, then watched it trickle toward the pin and disappear. It began a run of five consecutive birdies that essentially put the tournament on ice.
“That was just a good example of me playing smart,” Scheffler said. “If you miss it pin high on that hole, you're more than likely going to make a bogey. So all we were doing there was just trying to aim for the front edge. I hit a really good shot and the wind hit it and pushed it a little left. If I wasn't playing that smart, I would have been in a really tough position. I was in a position where there wasn't an easy chip, but it was a very gettable up-and-down and just fortunate to see it go in.”
Scheffler’s caddie, Ted Scott, promised his boss at the beginning of the year that if he chipped in at least 10 times, he’d give him a prize. Neither Scheffler nor Scott would disclose what Scott had to hand over, only that Scott did not expect to have to pay up so quickly.
“It’s probably a bit more fun for me than it is for him because I get to chip in, and he has to owe me for it,” Scheffler said.
If Scheffler does have a weakness, it’s that he doesn’t start particularly fast on Sundays. At the Masters, nothing about his game looked right early until he chipped in for birdie at the third hole. He’s never been able to explain that aspect of his game — or any aspect if he’s being honest.
“I’ve always had a hard time describing myself,” Scheffler admitted.
One theory for his slow starts gained some traction early in the week when Scheffler revealed that he never drinks coffee on tournament days, despite the fact that he loves making himself espresso and drinks it daily at home. “I just don’t need it out here,” he said, chuckling as a group of horrified coffee-infused media members looked at him like he’d just revealed he was a secret serial killer.
Scheffler came out of the gate on Sunday looking less like a jungle cat who saunters up the fairway and more like a freshly-born colt trying to keep his balance on unsteady legs. Min Woo Lee began the day trailing Scheffler two shots, but by the time the duo reached the fourth tee, Lee had erased that gap by birdieing the first hole and watching Scheffler make a sloppy bogey at the third.
The fourth hole, however, remains one of Pete Dye’s most diabolical gifts to the PGA Tour and its players. The fairway is shaped like a slithering python, and its skinny green is guarded by a bulkhead and a pond that swallows golf balls like they are helpless prey. Scheffler hit his drive up onto the mounds left of the fairway, and Lee pushed a driving iron into the rough on the right. Both men looked equally boned.
Lee chose to pitch out to the fairway, unwilling to risk an impossible shot to the green. Scheffler chose to be bold, hacking a wedge that soared high into the air. His ball flirted with the water after it was battered by the wind, but had just enough oomph to clear the pond. Now it was Lee’s turn. He tried to flight his wedge, but the wind wasn’t having it. It hit the green and danced along the bulkhead for a few seconds before tumbling into the water. He ended up making a triple bogey. No one ever got within three of Scheffler again.
“It happened really quick,” Lee said. “It's one of those things where it's Sunday and you just make a couple bad decisions and it all kind of falls down.”
Scheffler soon began to settle in for the kill. After a chip-in on No. 8, he blasted a 322-yard drive down the right side of the ninth fairway, followed it with a 244-yard 3-wood and a chip to five feet. Birdie.
He made an 18-footer on No. 10 for his third straight birdie, then leaned on his short game again to set up easy birdies at 11 and 12.
“I wanted to get as big of a lead as I could because you could hit a really good shot on 17 this afternoon and go in the water,” Scheffler said. He admitted he was sticking to a breathing routine he’d come up with to keep himself calm between swings, but nothing he thought was particularly interesting. Even his anxiety seemed fairly reserved and mundane.
“Not like 10 breaths, just like one or two,” he joked.
It was all but over when Scheffler’s shot at 17 found dry land, and as he watched it trickle down the spine of the green and settle beneath the hole he gave a noticeable fist pump. It was one of his few displays of outward emotion all day.
“Please, please hit the green,” Scheffler said when asked what was going through his mind. “You’re not really in control of what the ball does up there. You can only hit the shot and hope for the best.”
When Scheffler made a majestic 20-foot par putt on 18 — his putter raised into the air before the ball had even reached the hole — his family bounded toward the green, including his 87-year-old grandmother who walked every hole with Scheffler during the week. His wife, Meredith, wrapped him in her arms, but let him go eventually so his mother and father could have a turn. Scott Scheffler put his hands on his son Scottie’s cheeks and pulled him in close to deliver a message. The crowd had begun chanting Scheffler’s name.
“You bring joy, son,” he said, trying not to cry. “You bring joy. We are so proud.”
Kevin Van Valkenburg is the Editorial Director at No Laying Up.
Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.