Scottie Scheffler proves he’s a bad man by playing his best when it matters most

PONTE VEDRA BEACH — Scottie Scheffler was up big, but the big stick remained in hand, which seemed like a bad idea. The situation—a five-shot lead with four to go—called for a 3-wood, 5-wood, something safe off the 15th tee. The driver? Nothing but trouble and the murmurs around the box—What is he doing?—said as much. Only Scheffler stayed with driver because he was sticking to his game plan because playing safe is not for bad men and that’s what Scheffler is. The ball went far and straight, the crowd went nuts and Scheffler stayed emotionless, wondering why they would expect anything different.

That’s how it went Sunday at TPC Sawgrass: The course doing everything it could to get him sideways, Scheffler remaining steady, giving golf’s big-game hunter the 2023 Players Championship.

“I like it when things kind of get hard, and today was definitely one of those moments,” Scheffler said after a final-round 69 that was good for a five-shot win over Tyrrell Hatton. “So I just tried to stay focused and beat up on the golf course and not worry about what everybody else was doing.”

In a matter of 13 months Scheffler has gone from “When’s he going to break through?” to “Can he be stopped?” In a way he is Brooks Koepka 2.0, and clearly we are not comparing personalities; Scheffler does not have a bad word to say about anybody while everyone says nothing but good things about him. His greatest sin is an unrelenting niceness that can be misconstrued as mundane. No, the Koepka comparison is distilled to something else: Scheffler is the guy you can bet will play his best in the moments that matter the most.

Last month in the WM Phoenix Open, Scheffler won and defended in front of the rowdiest gallery in golf. A year ago he tackled Bay Hill in conditions so brutal others in the field threatened to protest future events. He’s the reigning Match Play king, a title earned by traversing a gauntlet of seven matches in five days with fortitude, patience, creativity and a little wild cowboy. He won the 2022 Masters with a performance so emphatic that it begged where this Texan could ultimately go. He went 2-0-1 at the 2021 Ryder Cup and took down European dynamo Jon Rahm in Sunday singles.

And it’s not just the wins. Scheffler has six finishes of T-8 or better at majors, including a runner-up at last year’s U.S. Open. Scheffler was in contention at St. Andrews before an unfortunate, um, “injury” derailed his weekend. He had 11 top-10s in 25 starts last year and has somehow improved this year with six in eight. To watch him work at a premier event is to watch a rock star on stage; the venues and crowds and background singers change. The song list remains the same.

“I think I get excited for a good, hard test. I feel like that I can find a way to make pars and hang in there,” Scheffler said. “This week I think I had five bogeys for the whole week. Around this place, I would say that’s really hard to do, and that’s probably what I’m most proud of, is just playing so solid. Yeah, I think I just like the challenge of kind of harder golf courses.”

Scheffler is not flawless. He has a penchant for starting slow, like he did during last year’s final round at the Masters, although this week we may have gotten insight into why: Scheffler avoids drinking coffee on game days because he likes making it at home. “I just got an espresso machine and started learning how to use it, and it’s fun,” Scheffler said. He needed a visit to the barista en route to the course Sunday, as he parred the very birdie-able second and bogeyed the third to lose his two-shot 54-hole lead to Min Woo Lee. In that instant it appeared we had a battle brewing.

Only Lee picked the worst time to make a triple, doing so at the fourth, providing breathing room the very moment Scheffler needed to catch his breath. Scheffler traversed the next three holes without incident, then chipped in at the eighth for birdie, beginning a run of four straight birdies that stretched his lead to six. The final 90 minutes were mostly procedural, the outcome never in doubt and made official when Scheffler’s approach at the island-green 17th stayed dry. For posterity, he dropped a 20-footer for par at the 18th, his arms going up as that white sphere went down to punctuate four days of stick-and-ball genius.

“I had some times throughout week where I didn’t feel like I was swinging my best or playing at a hundred percent, and then I would just kind of wait and pick my moments, and fortunately, I got kind of hot in spurts in each of my rounds,” Scheffler said. “I just found a way to choose my moments and get hot here and there and had four just really solid rounds.”

On a tour not short on talent, Scheffler is among its most skillful, possessing the power and precision and touch that allows for few if any weaknesses in his game. He is also among the most even-keeled customers, belied by an imposing stature that makes him look like the dude who comes to the door to collect when rent is overdue. It’s impossible to tell how Scheffler is playing because the man runs cool, forever and always.

There have been stumbles, however, most notably at the season-ending Tour Championsip last summer. Scheffler built a seemingly insurmountable six-lead to surrender the FedEx Cup and its riches to Rory McIlroy. Golf is not a sport that can be judged by non-wins, yet it was a collapse that threatened collateral damage. To his psyche, of course, but also to the air of inevitably he had cultivated over the past year. Golfers can smell blood in the water, and there are names that when plastered atop leaderboards tell those below understand the position is for the taking.

“I feel like a lot of that stuff is just what you go being a professional golfer. It’s a really hard sport,” Scheffler said. He later continued: “But all you can do is just continue to put yourself in position. It’s like volume shooting, I’m just going to try and get up there as many times as I can and see what happens. It’s a lot more fun being in that arena than it is finishing a few hours before the leaders finish. It’s more fun going down the stretch when you make a putt and people are cheering, and going out there and competing against my friends out here. It’s a lot more fun.”

Now, anyone can be the man when things are going good. What makes a bad man bad is standing firm in the storm. Scheffler got knocked down at East Lake. That runner-up at the U.S. Open and playoff loss last year at Colonial still sting, too. Scheffler confessed at last year’s Masters that the gravity of what was on the line forced him to tears just hours before his tee time. Today at TPC Sawgrass, Scheffler said there were no morning cries, but there were doubts.

“This tournament feels like a major championship to me and this morning was tough,” Scheffler said. “I would say that East Lake at the end of last year was pretty challenging for me just to handle. It was obviously very sad and hard, and I didn’t expect things to finish that way, So this one’s a lot sweeter now.”

There will be more storms to come, and Scheffler acknowledges as much. But he survived, and prevailed, at this Players Championship by staring down his recent past and moving forward. That should serve as a warning to the rest of golf. For there is little that can withstand a man—a talented, humble, big-game hunting bad man—who can conquer himself.


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