By Sal Johnson
Scheffler is finally back in the winner’s circle.
Many have wondered when Scottie Scheffler would return to the winners’ circle. Last year he had an incredible run of winning four events in just eight weeks, ending with his victory in the Masters. Because of that run, Scheffler claimed Player of the Year honors. After the run, Scheffler came down to earth, finishing T-15th at the Byron Nelson and then missing the cut at the PGA Championship. But after that, Scheffler returned his mojo with runner-up finishes at the Charles Schwab and U.S. Open. After missing the cut in the first FedExCup playoff event in Memphis, Schauffele was T-3rd at the BMW Championship and was runner-up at the Tour Championship. At East Lake, he had a six-shot lead after the third round, shooting 73 in the final round, and watched as Rory McIlroy shot 66 to beat him by a shot. It was one of the biggest meltdowns in golf history, costing Scheffler a little over $10 million.
Since then, Scheffler hasn’t played that poorly finishing T-3rd at Mayakoba, T-9th in Houston, and 2nd at the Hero World Challenge. When January set in, Scheffler was T-7th at the Sentry Tournament of Champions and T-11th at the American Express, so since the Masters, he hasn’t played that bad, just no winning golf. When he returned to Phoenix, it was like TinkerBell splashed some Pixie Dust on him as Scheffler shot 68-64-68-65 to claim victory again, this time by two shots over Nick Taylor. Scheffler won thanks to some supreme ball striking from tee-to-green, leading Strokes Gained Tee-to-Green category and finishing 3rd in Greens in Regulation. Hitting 56 of 72 greens were good, but the two secrets of Scheffler’s win were first the ability to get up and down on 14 of the 16 greens he missed. But Scheffler’s most significant achievement was playing TPC Scottsdale par 4s in 15 under par. To show how remarkable this was since stats have been kept in the Phoenix Open going back to 1997, only one other time did someone play the par 4s so well, and that was in 2013 when Brandt Snedeker was runner-up by playing the par 4s in 15 under par. In the previous 14 events in 2023, only once had someone gotten to that 15 under total, and that was Tom Hoge finishing T-4th at the Shriners Hospitals. In looking at the winners on the PGA Tour. The last time a winner was 15 under or better on the PGA Tour was last year’s Barbasol, when Trey Mullinax was also 15 under. Another primary key to Scheffler’s win was a bogey-free round of 65 which included an eagle at 13 and four birdies, the last coming at the 17th hole, which gave him a three-shot cushion going into the final hole.
With the win, Scheffler claimed $3.6 million, and Cameron Smith’s check of $3.6 million at the Players last year is the largest prize on the PGA Tour. Showing how remarkable Scheffler’s check was, Lee Trevino played on the PGA Tour for 23 years and in 481 events, only made a bit under $3.5 million. Going a step further, Arnold Palmer played on the PGA Tour and the Champions Tour for 60 years and in the 1,054 events played, made $3,627,652 or about $27,000 more than Scheffler made in four days.
The big question for us is if this victory will spur Scheffler on to add a bunch of wins in the weeks ahead. In his four-victory run last year, it came in only six starts making us wonder if we can see more of this in the 51 days left before the Masters? One thing working for Scheffler is winning this week at Riviera. In the 60 times the Genesis has been played at Riviera, there have been 46 different winners. Of those 46, 13 have also won the Masters, meaning the two courses have some things in common. Going even further, Bubba Watson, Mike Weir, Nick Faldo, Fred Couples, Tom Watson, and Sam Snead won each in a period of a year, so this makes us have a degree of confidence that Scheffler can pull off a victory this week in Los Angeles. Working against Scottie is the fact that in three previous tries at Riviera, Scheffler’s best finish was T-20th last year. Who knows, with three years on the course, maybe he has learned some things, last year, Scheffler shot 66 in the final round.
I picked up one last item in this Golf.Com article by Jonathan Wall. Seems that Scheffler changed at the Sentry Tournament of Champions to a TaylorMade Stealth 2 Plus driver. Seems that the driver put out too much spin, so they added three grams of weight to the driver and Scheffler got an extra ten yards on drives at TPC Scottsdale. Normally Scheffler would never do something like this, but for Scottie things worked out and just shows how much testing can help players, even with the small addition of three grams.
Another big surprise this week, Nick Taylor.
Since the tour resumed in January at Kapalua, we have had our fair share of obscure runner-ups, from Hayden Buckley at the Sony Hawaii to Davis Thompson at the American Express and Bradon Wu and Brendon Todd at Pebble. In Phoenix, we had Nick Taylor hanging close for most of the tournament, only to fall back with a bogey at 16. Taylor was born and raised in Canada, and when he joined the PGA Tour in 2015 made a bit of a splash with a victory in just his fourth start on the PGA Tour at Sanderson Farms. Taylor won again at the 2020 AT&T Pebble Beach, holding off the likes of Phil Mickelson. In his eight years on the PGA Tour, he has won just over $11 million, but he has struggled a bit in 2021 and ’22. Last year Taylor’s best finish was T-14th at Pebble. In both ’21 & ’22, he was out of the top-125 on the FedExCup standings, but he could stay on tour because of his Pebble win in 2020. Now the reason for the slide is his putting. In 2019, he was 38th in Strokes Gained Putting, but in 2020 he was 114th, in 2021 74th, and last year, he was 137th. At the Mayakoba, he switched to a claw-putting grip and had a T-7th at the Sony Open. The encouraging item for Taylor is that he has struggled on the TPC Scottsdale greens in past years, but that didn’t happen this year. He played well in the final round, other than the bogey at 16 and with his 8-foot birdie putt at 18, which earned him an extra $400,000. For many, the big question is, could this spur Taylor to play better? The bad news, in past years, Taylor plays his best from September to March. Since joining the tour in 2015, he has only finished in the top-ten six times from March to September, the best being a 5th place finish in Puerto Rico. This makes sense, Hayden Buckley and Davis Thompson haven’t done anything since their runner-up finishes, so it’s best to forget about Taylor.
Some pleasant surprises
Along with Taylor, I was shocked that Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth played so well. For Thomas, I was a bit surprised to see that Justin Thomas was filing stories on the Super Bowl media day, but after an opening round 71, Thomas shot 68-67-65 and had a stunning 4th-place finish. It was his first top-24 finish since the Tour Championship and only his third top-ten since winning the PGA Championship. Thomas’s bulk of victories comes on Bermuda, and with the Florida swing coming up have to think that Thomas may find himself in contention a few times leading up to the Masters. I also think he may be in contention this week in Riviera. Throughout his last five starts, he was T-9th in 2018 and 2nd in 2019 but missed the cut in ’20 & ’21 before finishing 6th last year.
As for Jordan Spieth’s T-6th at Phoenix was his first top-ten since the British Open. Spieth looked sharp in Phoenix, hitting all 18 greens in regulation during the second round. It was the second time in his career he has done that, the last 10 years ago at the AT&T National played at Congressional Country Club. Jordan lands this week in an event that he has a few top-tens, including a T-4th in 2015, but on a course, he should do well on. Have to think that Spieth will be ok as he gets ready for the Masters.
Jason Day has struggled since winning the Wells Fargo in 2018. He has labored with injuries that have forced him to re-work his swing and spent a lot of his time with his mother in her struggle with Cancer. She lost the battle last March. Day started the changes in 2020 when he dropped Colin Swatton, who had been Day’s swing coach and caddie since Day was in school. At the start of last year, Day started working with Chris Como on swing changes to help alleviate the pressure which caused his back pain. Besides his T-3rd at the Farmers last year, he has struggled with making the changes routine. After missing the cut in the season-opening Fortinet, Day has been consistent in his last eight events. He did miss the cut at the RSM Classic but has been in the top-25 in all the rest. He was T-18th at the American Express and T-7th at the Farmers. In Phoenix, he was 5th and feels like he is now regaining his lost confidence. The new swing is feeling more routine, and you have to think that he the putting improves a bit, he may find himself in contention. I believe that Day is close and could see himself winning again. Day’s number one project is finding a way to get into the Masters. At the end of 2022, Day was 112th in the official World Golf Rankings. After Phoenix, he was 57th, and the goal is to be in the top 50 at the end of the Match Play. I think that Day is close, and by the time he gets to Florida could win. He has won at the Palmer, Players, and Match Play, so it’s time to start looking at Day as an outstanding player again.
Is anybody else surprised at Patrick Cantlay and Collin Morikawa missing the cut at Phoenix?
For Cantlay, it wasn’t a surprise. He was T-16th at the Sentry T of C and T-26th at the American Express. The west coast swing has always been good for him since he limits his play in Florida. It’s hard to pinpoint what is wrong with Cantlay. He is first in Greens in Regulation and 12th in Strokes Gained putting, so why has he played so poorly? He is 113th in Strokes Gained Approach the Green and 123rd in Strokes Gained Around the Green. If you watch him play, you can’t see any flaws, and he has no injuries. This could probably be a case of Patrick being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I feel he isn’t hitting or putting poorly. He may not be sharp on his course management and executing his game. Riviera is the type of course he should do great on, and other than finishing T-4th in 2018 hasn’t played well. I think he will show much cleaner and better results this week.
As for Collin Morikawa, everything was out of sync. Hard to believe he only made four birdies in his 36 holes. The last time he had these few birdies were at the Memorial last year, he missed the cut in that one. The big disappointment was how could he finish 2nd at the Sentry and 3rd at the Farmers and then miss the cut? I have no answers. I guess it will be interesting to see what he does this week.
Arnie’s last charge
It was always a great moment when Arnold Palmer won. He did it 62 times on the PGA Tour and ten times on the Champions Tour. Palmer was as important to golf in the 60s and for many decades after, just like Tiger Woods is still important today. Palmer’s social aspect on golf helped drive the PGA Tour in the 60s, and he was the first true TV Superstar. Palmer died in 2016, and even though his memory is etched in the minds and history of golf, it’s hard to imagine that it was 50 years last week since he last won on the PGA Tour.
As the pros tee off this week in the Genesis Invitational, little will be remembered of the L.A. Open (as it was called) 40 years ago. For many Palmer fans like myself, it went down in golf annuals as Palmer’s last charge at winning on the PGA Tour.
As Palmer teed off in the 1983 Los Angeles Open, the tournament’s total purse was $300,000, with $54,000 going to the winner. Polyester was the rage, Reagan was president, and gas was 70¢ a gallon. Tiger Woods was 8 and beating all the juniors in California. Fred Couples was 23 and just three months away from his first victory, the Champions Tour was in its infancy, and Deane Beman was the Zar of the PGA Tour. I was a wide-eyed 26-year-old just a week away from my life totally changing. I took a job in Hawaii as a new producer for a local station in Honolulu. I was looking forward to the change in life, going from wearing suits to shorts and a tee shirt. But before the move, I experienced a day that changed the future of what I really wanted to do, hang out on the PGA Tour.
On that crisp, beautiful January Sunday afternoon in 1983, at age 53, Palmer was looking to break a 10-year drought on the PGA Tour. As he teed off in the final round, the King was in good sprints as he began his quest for his 63rd tour victory. Just one shot out of the lead, with three straight rounds in the 60s. I was going to spend a leisurely day getting ready for the move, but I was astonished that Palmer had a chance to win, so I decided to attend the final round. Back then, it was easy. The tournament was played at Rancho Park, next to Century City. Parking was easy; it cost $7 to attend the final round. Palmer had played in the L.A. Open for the first time in 1956. He finished T-27th and won $250. In 1963, Palmer won at Ranch Park, at the time one of the best municipal courses in the country. Palmer won again in 1966 and ’67, so he was a hero in Los Angeles. Palmer continued to play in the L.A. Open every year, even when the tournament shifted to Riviera in 1973. He played for the last time in 1977. In 1983 the PGA Championship was being played at Riviera, so the course returned to Rancho Park, and Palmer decided to return to a place that he had won at two times (His 3rd L.A. Open win in 1968 was played on another course).
Palmer opened up with a 66, followed up with rounds of 69-68, and was T-5th and just three shots out of the lead. It was the first time in years that he was still in contention on the final day. In many ways, Palmer had dedicated himself to regaining his form of the 60s by working harder on his game and losing 30 pounds over the winter with a new exercise program. Many believed his great playing was just a flashback to his years of glory and he would fade in the end, while Palmer felt it was an indication that he could still compete with the youngsters.
25,000 folks showed up that Sunday, many like myself to watch Palmer. Of the 25,000, about 24,000 followed around with Palmer, looking to rekindle the memories of victory in past years. As Palmer hit his tee shot on #1, it was as if father time had set the hands of time back 20 years. Everything was in place as Arnie’s Army was six deep, all hoping to see their general bring home a victory. Everywhere in West Los Angeles, you could tell by the cheers of the Army that the King was on one of his patented charges. He was three under in four holes in one stretch on the front side. Palmer was rifling iron shots stiff and making putts from everywhere, just like he had done in a bygone era.
When Arnie drilled a 25-footer for birdie on the 5th hole, pandemonium broke out. He was on top of the leaderboard for the first time in years, and in the town of make-believe, it looked like something from a script Dan Jenkins had made up. The hysterics were bouncing off the trees, and as Arnie walked to the 6th tee, it seemed as if time had stood still. The King had that magical glow in his eyes, with the pace in his walk quickening as he hitched his pants on every sixth stride. Despite a bogey at six, the charge was still in full swing when he birdied the eight hole to retain a share of the lead.
But then the bubble burst on the ninth hole, the same hole which proved to be a nemesis to Palmer back in 1961 when he took a 12. It is a short par-5 hole that is very narrow with out-of-bounds on both sides. It’s nothing more than a drive and a long iron, but in a repeat of 1961, his second shot got away from him and hit the driving range fence. The King was fortunate that the ball bounced back into the fairway, but instead of making birdie, he was forced to scramble for par and lose an essential stroke to the field.
Despite a 3-under 33 on the front side, that second shot at nine seemed to bother him on the 10th tee. He made a special effort not to lose it right again, but this time he pulled hooked it against another out-of-bounds fence. With a restricted swing, he was forced to chip out backward and made a bogey. Even though the army was still in high sprints, Palmer felt he had lost all of his momentum. “I never recovered from that shot mentally,” he said after the round. “I had a letdown after the drive at 10 and never felt comfortable after that”.
It turned into an ugly scene after that. Palmer pressed for a birdie on 11 and three-putted for a bogey. On the par-3 12th, he bunkered his tee shot and made his third successive bogey. When he missed a short putt for birdie on the 13th that would have moved him back within two strokes off the lead, there was a significant exodus of his army. The sad thing was they didn’t abandon their general to follow the leaders, they went to the exit gates. Palmer made another bogey at 17, and when he putted out on 18, with the winner still undecided, the rest of his loyal army went home. When Gil Morgan putted out and won the tournament, only a couple thousand fans stuck around. It was as if the 25,000 people came out to watch Palmer.
Ultimately, Palmer finished T-10th with a closing round of 72 and won $7,800. Since then, the King has thrilled millions of fans, winning ten tournaments on the Champions Tour. But on the regular tour, that would be his last charge. After that finish in L.A., Palmer played in 103 PGA Tour events for the last time at the Masters in 2004. After the tenth-place finish in L.A., Palmer only finished in the top-25 once, a T-24th in his tournament in 1991. A few days after that L.A. Open, I was on a plane for Hawaii and a new job, but that day at Rancho Park stuck in my mind. I wanted to work in Golf. Nine months later, I was offered a job by Terry Jastrow to work with him and IMG in the first year of Inside the PGA Tour. At that time, the rage was to do instructional videos, and I was lucky enough to work on Palmer’s two videos and got to know the man. I was fortunate to spend some time with Palmer, and the last time I talked with him was at the 2015 British Open. That was the first year they brought the past champions to St. Andrews, and even though Palmer couldn’t play due to a shoulder injury, he was a captain and a part in the ceremonies. It was about 9:30 at night, and I walked back to the house I was staying in and ran into Palmer and his second wife, Kit. Palmer didn’t remember my name, but he remembered who I was, and we talked for a few minutes. He said that he was leaving in the morning and wanted to stroll around the town of St. Andrews and reminisce tales of past British Opens. I saw Palmer one more time at the 2016 Masters, but Palmer was struggling and with all the folks around him, couldn’t say hi to him. Palmer passed away five months later, and still to this day, I remember that day 40 years ago at Rancho Park and how much Palmer changed my future.