THIRD TIME’S THE CHARM FOR SCHEFFLER
By the time Scottie Scheffler came to TPC Scottsdale’s 18th green for the third time during last year’s playoff at the WM Phoenix Open, he knew the putting surface as well as he does the menu at Opie’s, his favorite Texas BBQ restaurant near Austin. But at that moment it was a birdie, not brisket, on his mind after matching consecutive pars with opponent Patrick Cantlay.
“Patrick is obviously a phenomenal player, and I knew one of us was going to have to make a birdie,” said Scheffler, a University of Texas graduate. “Par wasn’t going to do it. This is a really hard tee ball (on 18) for me. It’s hard for me to get it in play, so I knew if I had an opportunity, I really had to take advantage of it.”
In just his third season on the PGA TOUR, Scheffler had quickly established himself as a rising star. He bounced back nicely from a missed cut in his first WM Phoenix Open appearance in 2020 with a tie for seventh in 2021, three shots behind winner Brooks Koepka. Add in 18 Top-10 finishes by the time he reached TPC Scottsdale last year, plus a singles win over Scottsdale resident Jon Rahm as a member of the 2020 Ryder Cup-winning U.S. team, and it was surely a matter of when he would get his first individual win, rather than if he could.
On Sunday last year, however, both the pesky 18th hole and the formidable Cantlay stood in the way of Scheffler’s effort to snag his first PGA TOUR title.
“I think you have to be aggressive off the tee there because if you hit that fairway, you’re going to have a short wedge to a gettable pin,” he said. “So, anytime you get it in the fairway, you’re going to be at a real big advantage. I was doing everything I could to get in the fairway, but that’s a tough one for me because I like to fade it and it’s a draw shot. It was seeing who would take the first punch and fortunately I was able to do that.”
One catch though – the final hole does not set up well for Scheffler’s ball flight.
“Honestly in the playoff I would prefer a hole that would go left to right because Patrick likes to draw the ball off the tee and I like to fade it, so I would have liked for it to have been a different hole,” he said.
And then during that third attempt in the playoff, Scheffler’s drive ended up in a fairway bunker.
“Any time I’m hitting a wedge out of a fairway bunker it’s very challenging,” he said. “You’ve got to catch the ball really clean, especially off an upslope like I was on in the playoff. That was definitely a challenging shot even with the situation.”
He succeeded, reaching the green and leaving himself a 25-foot birdie putt. Unlike during the final round, though, when he missed a 5-footer for the win in regulation, Scheffler did not miss this time, draining the 25-footer. He then watched as Cantlay’s 11-foot birdie putt slid by the right edge of the hole, giving the then 25-year-old Scheffler a much sought-after first win after 71 starts on the PGA TOUR. Doing so made him the 13th player to accomplish that feat at the WM Phoenix Open.
“Definitely nice to get my first win under the belt, and I think the first one is probably always the hardest,” Scheffler said afterwards.
One key to his victory was taking advantage of holes 13 through 18, where Scheffler finished 11-under for the tournament.
“I think it’s one of the more scorable stretches on TOUR, but there’s a lot of risk/reward with 17 being drivable but with water, and 15 having a lot of water but being a reachable par 5,” he said. “13 is also a really hard tee shot, but another one where if you hit a good drive, you can take advantage of it. So definitely a lot of scoring, but also a tough stretch because you have to hit a lot of good shots in order to score.”
Another integral part came on the greens, where Scheffler ranked second in putting for the week. “That was the real key to the win,” he said. “Obviously the putt in the playoff (to win), but I had to make a lot of putts on the back nine to kind of stay in the tournament.”
The victory kicked off an epic run matched by few, if any, WM Phoenix champions. Scheffler would go on to win three more times last season in a period spanning six starts over eight weeks, including his first major win at The Masters, raking in just over $14 million in prize money. The overall performance enabled him to win the Jack Nicklaus Award as PGA TOUR Player of the Year. But the scorching stretch surprised even him.
“No, I never really considered winning that many times,” he admitted. “I’ve always gone into events just trying to do my best and go from there. I don’t look too far ahead. When it comes to winning on TOUR I’m just trying to do my best each week and hopefully be there at the end. Fortunately, I was able to win a few times last year.”
One factor each win had in common was that he took at least a week off before each of them.
“I would say that’s a coincidence. It is definitely nice to be rested going into events, but I also play well in stretches, so it’s good for me when I’m kind of playing a lot. But there is definitely a value to rest when competing late on Sundays.”
But that streak and wildly successful season all started here at the WM Phoenix Open.
“I think it’s a pretty fun event,” said Scheffler. “It’s definitely different than a lot of the other events we play out here, but it’s certainly a lot of fun. I think if it was like this every week, it would be pretty draining. But to have it a couple times a year would be pretty fun. I think with the stadium hole at (TPC) Sawgrass, the 16th here, I think the Byron Nelson at home (at TPC Craig Ranch) is trying to do a little something with the 17th hole there. The environment is really fun to be around.”
What’s in store for Scheffler in 2023? Can he become the 9th player to win back-to-back at TPC Scottsdale? Can he match his Player of the Year stats from 2022? Well, we’ll just have to wait and see.