Will Scheffler be too hot to handle for in-form McIlroy and Rahm in a rivalry for the ages?
There is a scarred wall in Texas that tells a truth and kicks away at a myth. The myth is about Scottie Scheffler and the flat lines of a personality that have never knowingly ventured to extremes during his astonishing rise through golf.
He is, by consensus, a gentle assassin. An ‘aw shucks’ kind of killer. A man of deep faith who has won five PGA Tour titles and the Masters in the past 14 months, but does not go for the throat with his words.
Certainly, he is the more sedate of the three kings of golf who will begin as huge favourites at Augusta. While Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm breathe fire when the topic is right, Scheffler, the youngest of the trio at 26, brings the ice. And ice goes well with champagne.
To borrow the exaggerated observation of Brooks Koepka, delivered as a compliment on Full Swing: ‘The best player in the world doesn’t have any damn thoughts in his head.’
So let’s go back to that wall and the origin story of how tranquility was a process rather than a permanent state for the reigning champion of Augusta. The man sharing the yarn is laughing because John Fields, the head golf coach at the University of Texas, has seen other sides of the world No1 and has a deeper understanding of how the Master was made.
Scottie Scheffler (above) is more sedate than his great rivals Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm
‘If you want a competitor, he is your man,’ says Fields, and he has seen a few, having also applied the final coats of polish to Jordan Spieth before he went out into the world. Scheffler was a finance student on Fields’ programme from the age of 18 until his graduation at 22 in 2018 and he made his mark in a number of ways.
‘We’ve had holes in the gymnasium wall that I’ll tell you about,’ says Fields. ‘It was by the table tennis. Because of Scottie and a couple of other young men, we decided to put padding two or three inches thick on that wall. They got their anger or their competitiveness out and we got tired of seeing these holes in the wall. Scottie is a guy who just did not want to lose. At anything. As a coach, you do not want to take that out of someone.’
He has other tales to tell and all with great affection. Fields adds: ‘People talk about Ben Crenshaw [the 1984 and 1995 Masters champion] and his nickname is Gentle Ben, right? It was a joke that was given to him, because he was anything but gentle. He grew into that but his dad had to take them off the golf course multiple times when he was young.
‘Scottie never was taken off the golf course, although his dad was very firm with him and a really great mentor. But Scotty has grown into this guy that you see today. Scottie has this burning fire in him and sometimes it would spill over in high school and sometimes in college.
‘There were a couple of times that stick in my mind. We were in a particular tournament at Pumpkin Ridge. He had a shot that he wasn’t happy with and something came out of his mouth that wasn’t very good and one of the coaches took offence to it. Scottie apologised at the end of the day. Keep in mind, we’re coaching 18 to 22-year-olds and, from a certain regard, there’s some immaturity there. Scottie recognised he had made a mistake and took ownership of it. That’s important to growing.’
Fields enjoys these memories. They play to an internal drive that made Scheffler a three-time state champion in high school at Highland Park in Dallas — tying a record set by Spieth — and the winner of the US Junior Amateur Championships in 2013. They also point to how he came to be a great force in the hothouse of American college golf despite a series of injuries to his back and other places. Resilience and hunger, Fields believes, are as significant as any other weapon in Scheffler’s bag and have been key to how he stormed through the professional game.
‘I remember his freshman year,’ says Fields. ‘He had just won two tournaments consecutively and we were playing a regional tournament. On the final day, he got really upset with a shot that he didn’t like and he took a big swipe at a bush. Well, that bush contained thorns and a big one embedded all the way into his left thumb.
The in-form American golfer has won five PGA Tour titles and the Masters in the past 14 months
TOP TRIO IN PURSUIT OF THE TITLE
The Masters promises to produce a memorable battle between the world’s top three players. Scottie Scheffler, Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm have won 15 tournaments between them since the start of last year and shown the kind of electric form that makes them distinct favourites to win the Green Jacket.
Rory McIlroy (NIre)
World rank: 2
Tour earnings 2022-23: $45.79m (£36.98m)
Wins 2022-23: 4 (3 PGA, 1 Euro)
Average drive: 326.6 (1st)
Driving accuracy: 51.98% (188th)
Putting average: 1.78 (143rd)
Greens in regulation: 64.8% (143rd)
Jon Rahm (Spa)
World rank: 3
Tour earnings 2022-23: $22.12m (£17.86m)
Wins 2022-23: 6 (4 PGA, 2 Euro)
Average drive: 314.1 (5th)
Driving accuracy: 57.5% (120th)
Putting average: 1.67 (2nd)
Greens in regulation: 72.8% (3rd)
Scottie Scheffler (US)
World rank: 1
Tour earnings 2022-23: $41.67m (£33.65m)
Wins 2022-23: 5 PGA
Average drive (yards): 308.7 (Rank: 20th)
Driving accuracy: 63.29% (41st)
Putting average: 1.71 (23rd)
Greens in regulation: 73.77% (1st)
‘The only way to get that out really was going to be surgery, but we’re going to play again the following week so he just kept it iced and had a great tournament. Tough kid.
‘Thing with Scottie, he was also a very good basketball player. One day he played pick-up basketball with his friends and twisted his ankle pretty badly, but in his head he had to play the tournament we had coming up. They put a protective boot on him and he went and played the 36 holes with that.’
He won, of course.
‘There’s a lot that has gone into it over the years,’ says Fields. ‘He’s had a few angels come into his life. Meredith, his wife, is one who really helped him harness that energy. He has great parents, too, and his coach Randy Smith is up with Butch Harmon as the best in the world. A lot of it has to do with his faith and between all that he is the No1 player in the world, but there’s a big major league fire in his heart for competitiveness.
‘I always say what makes a guy good is what makes him bad and vice versa, so a coach has to deal with that. If the coach decides to take that away from the guy, you run the risk of taking this unbelievable talent and putting it in the icebox never to be seen again. The fire creates this energy that sustains you.’
Those fires are propelling one of the hottest streaks in golf. They have also contributed to a tremendous three-way rivalry — if Rahm, McIlroy and Scheffler hit their best at Augusta, it would be a showdown for the ages.
Between them they have 15 worldwide wins since the start of 2022 and, within that dominant group, Scheffler and Rahm seem to have gentler fluctuations in form than McIlroy.
It has sometimes given way to a view that Scheffler is more robotic in approach, which both overlooks the quirks of his swing — his foot movement is found in no textbook — and draws incredulity from Fields.
In his mind, Scheffler’s exceptional short game ingenuity amounts to genius more commonly aligned with a player he once rubbed shoulders with on the European Tour in the Eighties. ‘If you believe in another life, Seve Ballesteros might have jumped in this guy’s body!’ he says.
‘I used to have a name for Scottie — Balle-Scheffler. I never said that to him but it was in my head. The way we got there was his anger and his competitiveness would boil over, so I walked with him a lot.
Scheffler, McIlroy (L) and Rahm (R) have 15 worldwide wins since the start of 2022
‘When he would get in trouble on the course, I noticed that when I asked him what kind of shot he would try, he might tell me and then about 90 per cent of the time he wouldn’t pull it off. So I just decided to keep my mouth shut and just watched.
‘I saw he would go into this creative mode and then 98 per cent of the time he was pulling it off. Only person I’d ever seen do that really was Ballesteros. After that I took a chill pill and thought, “OK, it’s Balle-Scheffler time”. He would do something spectacular.
‘He is blessed with that kind of ability and you can see it with what he did at the Masters last year when he chipped in on three in the final round to really get going. It’s pure creativity. Why that is I don’t know. Why was Michelangelo able to paint the Sistine Chapel?’
A robot? It would seem there is far more to the reigning Master of Augusta than that.