Maybe it’s a Texas thing. Or a match-play thing. Or a young-guy-being-oblivious thing. Whatever. Whether you bet on golf, have a stake in fantasy games, or just plain love to pick a guy to root for every tournament, if you didn’t hitch yourself to Scottie Scheffler’s well-oiled wagon in Texas this week, we have a simple question for you: Why the heck not?
The 25-year-old Scheffler is a former star at the University of Texas who figures he’s played Austin Country Club more than 100 times. Last year, in his debut of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, he reached the finals before falling to another mano-a-mano bulldog in Billy Horschel. In Scheffler’s first Ryder Cup last September, he performed as if he was born to hear the national anthem on the first tee. You might remember he went unbeaten and smoked World No.1 Jon Rahm in Sunday singles.
Everything about Scheffler seems to exude Match Play Monster, from his lanky 6-foot-3 frame to his grip-and-rip-it driver swing to a calm façade that can make Dustin Johnson look positively manic.
Scheffler is the full package, and he’s showing that once again in what seems to be a theatre made especially for him. On Saturday morning, the World No.5 overcame a bit of a sleepy start to avenge last year’s final loss by beating Horschel 1 up in the round of 16. Then in the afternoon quarter-finals, he was relentlessly overpowering in dominating Ireland’s Seamus Power 3 and 2.
Scheffler closed out the match spectacularly, pitching in an eagle from 91 feet on the 16th hole.
A year ago, Scheffler beat Rahm in the quarters and Matt Kuchar in the semi-finals. This year, the challenge seemingly gets steeper with a Sunday morning semi-final draw against World No.11 Dustin Johnson, the 2017 Match Play champ who beat Brooks Koepka 2 up in the quarters following a 3-and-2 win over 49-year-old Richard Bland in the morning. (It was a cruel defeat for Bland, denying him his first-ever trip to the Masters through the World Ranking.)
On the other side of the semis is another former Match Play champ, 38-year-old Kevin Kisner, facing 30-year-old Corey Conners, who’s in only his second Match Play after not getting out of the group stage last year.
Kisner beat up on Will Zalatoris 5 and 3 in the quarters following a morning escape from Adam Scott in which Kisner overcame a 3-down deficit with four holes to play. The comeback included holing out a bunker shot from 50 feet for eagle at the 16th. Conners, who became only the second Canadian to reach the event’s quarters, beat Abraham Ancer 2 up in the afternoon after dismissing Japan’s Takumi Kanaya 5 and 3 in the round of 16.
It would certainly seem like the brackets have tipped in a most lopsided way, but that hardly matters to the four guys left who are competing for the $US2.1 million first prize. The runner-up gets $1.32 million.
For Scheffler, there’s even more at stake. With a third victory in his last five starts – he only won his first title on February 14! – he’d become the World No.1. Scheffler insisted on Saturday that he was in “no rush” to get to that lofty spot. His play would speak otherwise.
“I’m pretty blessed to be playing out here on the PGA Tour,” he said. “I’m just enjoying myself out here and trying to do the best I can and to compete.”
Scheffler has been far from perfect this week. He lost 2 and 1 to Tommy Fleetwood on the second day of group play, and then had to twice beat Matt Fitzpatrick on Day 3 – in regulation and then a playoff. He was 1-down to Horschel through nine on Saturday morning, but lost just one hole after that.
Scheffler can’t come up with a definitive answer for why he’s stellar in match play. He said it really depends on each opponent and circumstance.
“I think this week I had one of those matches against Fleetwood where he just played better than I did. I didn’t play badly, I just played pretty good. I didn’t make as many putts as maybe I usually would, and he just beat me.
“There’s some other matches, maybe the one [Saturday morning], where I didn’t have my best stuff, but was still able to close out the match. It’s one of those deals you get a feel for how the match is going and go from there.”
In Johnson, Scheffler draws possibly the only guy cooler than him, and DJ will be in good spirits after beating his mate Brooks in the match he didn’t lead until the 15th hole. In his Match Play victory of 2017, Johnson defeated Rahm 1 up in the final after beating Hideto Tanihara in the semis.
Johnson, 37, lamented not holing many putts on Saturday, but it was pointed out to him that for the week he has been among the field’s top putters.
“I guess I’m making some putts, but I don’t feel like I’m making a lot,” he allowed. “But I’ve had a lot of good looks, so I think that’s the difference.”
If he’s lifting the trophy on Sunday night, it will be a milestone occasion – Johnson’s 25th victory on the PGA Tour. It seems like long ago that he pulled on the green jacket at the delayed 2020 Masters, and though he’s been seemingly quiet, even dropping out of the world’s top 10 last week, there were indications Johnson was coming into form when he shot 63 in the final round of the Players.
Sunday’s sentimental favourite, to Americans at least, may be Kisner. He has already said that he’d have no chance in Match Play on a beefier track, but Austin Country Club suits him fine, and he’s the ultimate grinder, as he proved to Scott in Saturday’s tremendous comeback.
“I don’t feel like I’m behind the 8-ball on the first tee from a distance standpoint,” said Kisner, who has four tour titles – the most recent coming in the 2021 Wyndham Championship. “I haven’t played a single person yet in five matches that hits it anywhere remotely close to the same distance as me. I’ll give you an example: On 11 tee I tried to cut a 6-iron and Will hit a 9-iron and flew it past my ball.
“In a lot of events, I’m dead in the water. … I love that I can work the ball, use slopes, use the firmness of the fairways and the greens to help me.”
Conners, whose only tour win came in the 2019 Valero Texas Open, some 130 kilometres from Austin in San Antonio, is a “hell of a ball striker” in Kisner’s eyes. So Kisner’s strategy? “Annoy him with my putter.”
It’s become abundantly clear that, by design or circumstance, the opponent makes no difference to Kisner.
“They all look the same to me,” he said, while sharing a story that he saw Koepka in the locker room on Saturday and asked if they were playing each other. Imagine the look on Koepka’s face. No, Koepka replied, he was playing DJ in a half-hour.
“I don’t ever look, man,” Kisner said. “They tell me where to tee off, and we’ll go from there.”