Scheffler Shows His Mettle

Scheffler Shows His Mettle

Contributor: Doug Ferguson

Scheffler certainly did his part to put the attention squarely back on golf. He looked to be headed for another runner-up finish in the WM Phoenix Open when Patrick Cantlay stood over a 10-foot birdie putt in a playoff. Cantlay missed, and Scheffler seized on the opportunity by winning for the first time on the PGA Tour. Three weeks later, on a Bay Hill course in Florida that was so crusty and yellow it felt like US Open conditions, Scheffler showed his mettle down the stretch by closing with four tough pars to win. And then in the WGC Dell Technologies Match Play, the Texan had to emerge from a group of European Ryder Cup players — Ian Poulter, Tommy Fleetwood and Matt Fitzpatrick — and then take down Dustin Johnson in the semi-finals before cruising to a third win in five starts. This one took him to number one in the world, replacing Jon Rahm.

Scheffler was born in New Jersey before his mother took a job running a law firm in Dallas, and they took out a golf membership at Royal Oaks to work with Randy Smith. The pro recalls a boy who sat for hours on an empty bucket of range balls to watch tour players work magic with their short game, often challenging them to contests. In the Texas heat, Scheffler wore long pants at junior tournaments because that’s how tour players dressed, and that’s what he wanted to be.

That was his dream. Reaching number one in the world in just three years on the PGA Tour? “I never really got that far in my dreams,” he said. Surely, the big run would have to end at some point. Golf is filled with players who get on hot streaks until they eventually fade. Next up was the Masters, and so much attention was on the return of Woods and the hopes of McIlroy getting the last leg of the career Grand Slam or Smith, fresh off his bold win at the Players Championship. That changed when Scheffler posted a 67 on Friday in a raging wind that plays with the mind among the Georgia pines. He built a five- shot lead, and no one caught him.

Now there was no denying the number one player in golf, even if it was still fresh enough not to feel real to Scheffler. It was his final victory of the year, and it would be easy to suggest that he finally faded into the background. But consider how close he came to making 2022 one of the great years in golf. He lost in a playoff at the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial when his close friend, Sam Burns, holed a 45-foot birdie putt to win. He was one putt away from a playoff with Matt Fitzpatrick in the US Open at The Country Club. He was lurking at St Andrews until a boil developed on the weekend, making it painful for him to walk. Scheffler didn’t disclose that injury until later. His season ended by finishing one shot behind McIlroy in the Tour Championship, costing him the FedEx Cup and its $18 million bonus. The Tour Championship has gone to a staggered start based on a player’s position in the FedEx Cup, meaning Scheffler started with a two-shot lead against the 30-man field, and a six-shot lead to start against McIlroy. He still led by six going into the final round when McIlroy chased him down for the win. “I’ve had a really great year and I wanted to finish it off with a win here,” Scheffler said. He had to settle for leading the world money list at $14,323,704, more than $3 million ahead of McIlroy, not including the FedEx Cup bonus. He was voted the PGA Tour Player of the Year for his four victories, his first major and for holding the number one ranking longer than anyone else in 2022. It wasn’t all bad.

Smith had five victories and could have made a strong case for PGA Tour Player of the Year, and even though he left to join LIV Golf, he remained on the ballot. The strife was such that Smith most certainly wasn’t given much consideration. His play spoke volumes, though. Renowned as a pure putter who could be wild off the tee, Smith devoted himself to fitness to become stronger, not so much for added distance but greater control of his swing. When he was keeping the ball in play, he was a threat. And with that sure-fire putter, the Australian showed how explosive he could be. Smith sent out an early indication at the Sentry Tournament of Champions on the Plantation course at Kapalua, a par 73 that is suited for power. He wound up setting a PGA Tour record to par at 34 under to beat Rahm, who entered the year as the number one player in the world.

And then Smith elevated his game even higher at the Players Championship, which PGA Tour players consider to be the next best thing to a major. It certainly was the wildest week of weather, with rain, wind and near-freezing temperatures. The third round wasn’t completed until Monday morning. The most difficult day was Saturday, when players faced 40 mph gusts when playing to the nefarious par-three 17th with the island green. Smith battled his way into contention, going into the final round just two shots behind. He had only one par through 13 holes. He one-putted eight of the last nine greens. With the tournament on the line and the pin on the island green tucked to the right, Smith hit nine-iron onto the 12 feet of grass separating the pin from the water. And after punching out of the trees into the water on the final hole, he calmly hit wedge to three feet to secure the win. That defined him as a player — tough as nails, a product of growing up in Queensland. “I grew up watching rugby league and watching the Queenslanders come from behind. And even when it got gritty, they’d somehow manage to win. I think that’s kind of instilled in all of us,” he said.

It was plenty gritty at St Andrews, where his 30 on the back nine for a 64 and a one-shot victory will be remembered as one of the greatest closing rounds in Open Championship history. It was his first major, and Smith added two more victories — one in LIV Golf, the other at the Australian PGA Championship during his first trip home in three years because of travel restrictions from the Covid-19 pandemic.

With practically every stop along the way, LIV Golf remained a topic, even at the majors. “You can’t go anywhere without somebody bringing it up,” Justin Thomas said at Brookline. “This is the US Open, and this is an unbelievable venue, a place with so much history, an unbelievable field, so many storylines, and yet that seems to be what all the questions are about. That’s not right for the US Open. That’s not right for us players. But that’s, unfortunately, where we’re at right now.”

Part of that was speculation of who was going to join, and a big part of the conversation centred around one player no one saw. Mickelson disappeared from public view after his comments exposed his intentions of working with the Saudis — a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get leverage against the PGA Tour and change the way it operates. It wasn’t until Mickelson and other players filed the lawsuit in August was it disclosed Monahan had suspended him for two months — March 22 to May 22 — for recruiting players to a rival league. Mickelson was a no-show at the Masters, and he chose not to defend his title at the PGA Championship. By the time the US Open arrived, he was suspended for the rest of the year for playing in a LIV Golf event. He offered no real insight in an awkward press conference at Brookline, and he was gone by the weekend. He missed the cut in both majors he played, the US Open and The Open. Mickelson finished his second round at St Andrews about two hours after Woods, and only a few hundred spectators remained in the grandstands offering polite applause. A year before, he became the oldest major champion by winning the PGA at age 50. He ended 2022 outside the top 200 in the world for the first time since July 1992 — a year before Jordan Spieth was born.


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