Scottie Scheffler is in a fight at this PGA Championship. It’s the best thing for golf


LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In case anyone had forgotten how dominant he has been this season, Scottie Scheffler wasted little time reminding them Thursday at Valhalla Golf Club. The world’s top-ranked player returned from a three-week absence, drove his tee shot down the right side of the No. 1 fairway, then launched a ball 167 yards to the green, where it bounced once and dropped into the bottom of the cup for an eagle.

As the gallery roared at the 106th PGA Championship, Scheffler slapped hands with his caddie Ted Scott. A slight smirk crept across his face, as if to say, “Can you believe it?” Only there’s no reason to not believe it when it comes to Scheffler, whose dominance has been so complete since March that the story can be told without saying a word. Just listen to the pauses and sighs that precede most of the comments when opponents are asked about his play.

The silence sometimes feels like appreciation for what he has done — he entered the week having won four of his last five starts, with 19 of 21 rounds of 70 or lower after shooting a first-round 67 Thursday, five strokes back of the leader Xander Schauffele — and at other times it feels like resignation for what could await them.

“It’s pretty cool to see somebody kind of push the limit on what you thought was possible,” Max Homa said earlier in the week. “I did not think you could hit a golf ball this well for this long. I did not know that was possible. We saw it with Tiger, but I wasn’t around then — and Tiger feels like a mythological creature, especially when you look back on some of those seasons he had from 2000 to 2008 or 2009 or whatever it was. I mean, just like absurd golf.”

Absurd is as good a place as any to start when discussing Scheffler’s game. During his 52 consecutive weeks as the world’s No. 1, he has more tournament wins (five) than finishes outside of the top 10 (four) and ranks as only the third player in the last 30 years to finish second or higher in five consecutive starts.

Pause. Sigh.

“If he putts awful, then he finishes in the top 10,” Tiger Woods said Tuesday. “If he putts decent, he wins. He putts great, he runs away.”

That may be great for Scheffler, but it’s problematic for professional golf because it has not moved the needle with the general public. Fans respect what he has done — how could they not? — but it has not translated into appointment viewing. CBS’ final-round ratings from last month’s Masters fell 20 percent year-over-year, and the 9.58 million viewers represented the lowest total in a non-COVID year since 1993, according to Sports Business Journal.

This brings me to this week’s PGA Championship, and why it could be significant for the health of professional golf. Its relationship with casual fans is strained, to say the least. If it’s not because of a season lacking in drama and theatrics, it’s due to the off-course fighting between the PGA Tour and the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia.

“It doesn’t feel like it’s dying, yet you hear a lot of very valid complaints on the internet,” Homa said. “It’s very troubling. I don’t like where it’s going. It’s got to be exhausting to be a casual golf fan at this point in time. I don’t know why you would want to hear about the business side of this game.”

This week can bring casuals back to the table. Let us count some ways:

Conflict

Everyone loves a competitive battle, and Scheffler could actually be confronted with one on Sunday. Rory McIlroy, for one, is coming off back-to-back victories, and also earned his last majors title in 2014 on this very course, shooting 68 or better in every round of that PGA Championship. He is tied for fourth at this PGA after shooting a 66 on Thursday.

“I think it’s all about confidence and momentum, and I have a lot of confidence and quite a bit of momentum coming into this week. … This is a golf course that allows you to play with freedom because it’s a big golf course. The corridors are wide, not too dissimilar to last week at Quail Hollow, so you can open your shoulders up off the tee and try to take your chances from there,” McIlroy said.

Keys to beating Scheffler will involve making the most of bad situations and getting a little lucky. Both happened for McIlroy, who after bogeying the eighth hole saved par on the ninth (actual hole No. 18) even after hitting into the water. He then hit the flagstick and birdied the next hole.

“I could have easily bogeyed 18 and been back to even par, and then again, that ball on 1 could have hit the flagstick and went anywhere,” he said. “I could have made bogey from that, potentially being 1-over par through 10 (but) I’m 2-under. So it’s a three-shot difference. It’s a big swing.”

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Rory McIlroy caught a couple of breaks in his first round at the PGA Championship. (Jeff Faughender / USA Today Sports)
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Xander Schauffele could also play the role of foil after opening with a majors-tying 62 Thursday, but his struggles to close out tournaments give you pause. Last week he led Wells Fargo by four after 36 holes and was up by one entering Sunday, but finished five strokes behind McIlroy. Among those who’ve appeared in at least 25 majors, he has the lowest career first-round scoring average all-time, yet he’s still seeking his first title in his 28th start.

He said all the right things Thursday following his record showing. And if there truly is no scar tissue, perhaps he can provide some desired suspense Sunday.

“I think not winning makes you want to win more, as weird as that is,” he said. “For me, at least, I react to it, and I want it more and more and more, and it makes me want to work harder and harder and harder.”

The course

Valhalla, which is hosting its fourth PGA Championship, has a history of memorable finishes. Its first two championships required playoffs that were won by Mark Brooks (1996) and Woods (2000), and its third one concluded with McIlroy storming back from three down on Sunday to beat a setting sun and Phil Mickelson, Henrik Stenson and Rickie Fowler.

“That’s a good question,” Louisville native Justin Thomas said when asked why Valhalla is synonymous with cliff-hangers. “I just think there’s not a lot of different ways to play the golf course. For the most part you know if it’s a par-4 or -5, you’re just grabbing a driver when you get to the tee and you’re just hoping you hit the fairway; and then you’re probably going to hit somewhere between a 5- and an 8-iron into the green. I think when you give all of us very similar places to play from, you have the opportunity for more bunched leaderboards.”

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History

Scheffler will be challenged by history as well as a talented field. For all of his recent success, he has never won a major outside the month of April, with both titles coming at the Masters. It’s a small sample size, granted, but someone as competitive as he is undoubtedly isn’t OK with it.

Also, winning by itself is not enough to make him appointment viewing for casuals. Flashbulb moments, iconic stare-downs and dramatic shots on Sunday are what drive water-cooler chatter on Monday mornings. A Hall of Fame sports director once told me that the hint of something special, the possibility of seeing something you might never see again, attracts eyeballs.

When casuals think of the all-time golf greats, they have no problem recalling a memorable moment or shot like Woods’ chip-in on 16 at Augusta in 2005, Michelson’s semi-leap after winning the Masters in 2004, Tom Watson’s chip-in on 17 at Pebble Beach in 1982, or McIlroy’s 283-yard approach on 10 to set up eagle and jumpstart his comeback at Valhalla in 2014.

Non-hardcore fans would have a hard time coming up with such a moment by Scheffler, which should not be construed as a slight. The Dallas native plays the percentages as well as anyone, minimizing harm and maximizing opportunities. We should all be so efficient.

But creating mass interest requires more than that. Attracting fans is as much about how you win as whether you win. This week presents that opportunity for Scheffler. The eagle on No. 1 was a good start, but seeing it on Sunday in a back-and-forth battle would be even better.

(Top photo: Andrew Redington / Getty Images)





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