Red-hot Scheffler wins Masters for first major title

Scottie Scheffler earned his fourth PGA TOUR title in six starts at the Masters, finishing 10-under at Augusta National for a three-stroke win over Rory McIlroy. (Keyur Khamar/PGA TOUR)

AUGUSTA, Ga. – David Piehler emphasizes the finer points of basketball to his players at Dallas’ Highland Park High School. Boxing out, setting screens and taking charges are all important to the winningest boys’ basketball coach in the school’s history. They aren’t skills that will fill up a stat sheet, go viral or even get noticed by college coaches, but they’re necessary for the Scots to compete in the second-largest division of Texas high school athletics. 

“We’re not always the quickest, strongest or jump the highest, so we have to play together in order to win,” said Piehler, who has won 75% of his games at Highland Park despite having just one player in his 16 years go on to earn a Division I scholarship. 

There was one player, however, who Piehler asked to be more prudent about sacrificing his body. The Scots’ sixth man in 2014 also was the No. 1 junior golfer in the country, Scottie Scheffler.

“I had to pull him aside a few times and say, ‘If you see a big guy coming down the lane, you step aside,’” Piehler said Sunday morning, while his former player was waiting to tee off in the Masters with a three-shot lead. “He was unconcerned with his well-being. … My biggest fear was that he’d jeopardize his golf career.”

Scheffler was willing to do the gritty deeds necessary to help his team win. That characteristic came in handy at the 86th Masters Tournament, where he overcame cold, windy conditions and the pressure inherent to holding a record-tying lead to win his first major championship. Five ahead after 36 holes and leading by three entering the final round, Scheffler went on to win by three shots after an inconsequential four-putt on the final green. He was the only player to break par in all four rounds, shooting 10-under 278 to finish three ahead of Rory McIlroy, who holed out from the greenside bunker on 18 to shoot 64. 

The Masters was Scheffler’s fourth win in his last six starts, cementing his position as the top player in the game right now. Scheffler, 25, arrived at Augusta National at No. 1 in both the FedExCup and Official World Golf Ranking. His lead in both rankings has only grown.

Scheffler has seemed invincible over the last two months, but he admitted that he was in tears before the final round, overwhelmed by the magnitude of the moment.

“I was so stressed out. I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “I was sitting there telling (wife) Meredith, ‘I don’t think I’m ready for this. I’m not ready.’”

Before they headed to the first tee Sunday, Scheffler’s caddie Ted Scott, whose arrival on the bag has coincided with Scheffler’s rapid rise, pulled down the zipper on his white jumpsuit and pointed to his chest, showing Scheffler the green shirt that read, “God is in control.” Meredith Scheffler had delivered the same message to her husband that morning. 

Once on the course, Scheffler showed the same toughness that made him unafraid to be slammed to the hardwood. It served him well Sunday. His short game allowed him to grind out crucial par-saves – and one improbable birdie that changed the course of the round. It started on the first hole, where he missed the fairway and his recovery shot rolled through the green. He chipped within inches to lose just one shot to the birdie by Cameron Smith, who started the day in second place. Then there was the chip-in on 3, where it appeared he might lose the solo lead for the first time since Friday. He banged his ball into a steep slope and watched it trickle into the hole. Smith has one of the world’s best short games – it was on full display in last month’s PLAYERS win – but it took him three shots to hole out from a similar position, allowing Scheffler to regain his three-shot lead.

Scott said that birdie told Scheffler, “I’m ready to hit good golf shots.”

Another par-save on the 11th hole kept Smith three behind after he birdied the same hole. Scheffler then got up-and-down on 12 to distance himself from Smith, who triple bogeyed the hole after hitting his tee shot into the water. And one more touchy chip on 15 led to the birdie that removed any question that Scheffler would become the newest Masters champion.

“I never expected to be sitting where I am now,” he said from the champion’s press conference. “You don’t expect things to come to you in this life. You just do the best you can with the hand you’re dealt. … I never really thought I was that good at golf, so I just kept practicing and kept working hard, and that’s just what I’m going to keep doing.”

Piehler knew Scheffler’s future was bright when two college coaches were seen in the stands at one of Highland Park’s junior varsity games on a cold, winter weekday night. He went up in the stands to ask why two men from the University of Texas and Texas A&M were scouting the JV squad. That’s when he found out they were golf coaches, there to show Scheffler they were serious about getting him to sign with their program. That summer, Scheffler would win the U.S. Junior and advance to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Amateur. As a high school senior, he finished T22 in his PGA TOUR debut at the AT&T Byron Nelson.

At that point, Scheffler’s legend had been growing around Royal Oaks Country Club for a decade. The Schefflers became members after moving to Texas from New Jersey when Scottie was 6 years old. He quickly became a fixture at the back of the range, where TOUR players congregated to work with the club’s legendary instructor, Randy Smith.

Scheffler often could be found sitting on a range bucket, watching Smith teach the likes of Justin Leonard, Gary Woodland, Ryan Palmer, Harrison Frazar and Colt Knost. Smith recognized quickly that Scheffler was different than the other kids his age.

“Everything he did was tied to a target,” Smith said. “That was something you just didn’t see in young, young kids. That has never changed.”

Knost said Scheffler was “born to do this.” His was a natural gift that was nurtured by a unique environment. The pros at Royal Oaks welcomed the youngster in their midst who would quietly observe them as they worked.

“He would hardly say anything unless he thought they weren’t performing like he thought they should,” said Smith, recalling the time one of his TOUR players was hitting wedges at a pole that sits 87 yards from the practice tee. After several unsuccessful attempts to hit it, a young Scheffler innocently asked, “Why don’t you hit it?”

“That’s the kind of attitude he had. If that’s what you’re trying to do, go ahead and hit it,” Smith said. When Scheffler left to hit balls a few feet away, he hit the pole with his third shot. The metal pole rung out with the impact, an audible announcement of the kid’s talent. 

“He was always a sponge,” said Knost, who won both the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Amateur Public Links in 2007 before playing nearly 200 events on the PGA TOUR. Knost remembers working on his bunker shots while Scheffler, who was around 10 years old at the time, sat on the lip of the sand trap. Knost was shagging his balls when a ball landed on the green, took two hops and stopped near the hole. 

“How the hell did you do that?” Knost asked.

“I was just watching,” Scheffler said. Knost laughs at the story of Frazar, who won once on TOUR, spending hours on the putting green, trying to complete a drill that Smith had invented. Scheffler completed it on his first try after arriving at the course from school. Scheffler would hold his own in putting and chipping contests, even when he was 10, and he’d play from the back tees at Royal Oaks even when he was too small to reach the par-4s in two. It taught him how to play strategically, and it developed the short game that served him so well at Augusta National. Scheffler wore pants and polos to emulate the pros, as well.

“I think that’s where he learned to play golf,” Knost said. “In today’s world, all these young up-and-comers, everything is about being perfect, the perfect golf swing, on Trackman, grinding all the time. He’s always known how to play golf. It’s not always the prettiest looking thing but he just gets it done.”

Studying under Smith’s old-school tutelage taught him how to work the ball and focus on his score, instead of his swing. It showed in Scheffler’s warm-up before the final round, where he alternated between hitting draws and fades, hitting high shots and low ones. 

“He is trying to hit shots,” said Bubba Watson, Scheffler’s teammate in last year’s Zurich Classic of New Orleans and a player who used creativity to win two Masters. “(Augusta National) is a perfect kind of setting for him to try to create.”

Watson’s caddie in those two Masters triumphs may have been the final piece of the puzzle for Scheffler, the 2019 Korn Ferry Tour Player of the Year and 2020 PGA TOUR Rookie of the Year. Scheffler and Scott have a close relationship as Christians, and Scheffler described him as humble, hard-working and honest. 

“He’s an amazing guy,” Scheffler said. “To be able to have him on the bag is so special.” 

Scheffler has won four of the 10 events they’ve worked together. Scheffler’s faith and a family that will make fun of him, even if he is a Masters champion, also are an asset. 

“My identity isn’t in a golf score,” he said. “Meredith always prays for peace because that’s what I want to feel on the golf course, is peace and have fun and just feel His presence.”

Scheffler will enjoy his newfound standing. A week ago, he joked that, as the No. 1 player in the world, he shouldn’t have to take out the trash. He was told to do his chores. He still drives the 10-year-old GMC Yukon that his father bought in Augusta the day after the 2012 Masters, after the family car broke down during the family’s trip to the tournament. “Everyone else got a T-shirt and I got a car payment,” Scottie’s father, Scott, joked.

That same car drove down Magnolia Lane on Sunday evening. It was carrying a Masters champion.

* Information and images credit to www.pgatour.com

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