AUGUSTA, Ga. — Scottie Scheffler is just 25, and on Sunday evening he pulled on a green jacket, a Masters champion after just his third Masters. He has ample game and a serene demeanor, and he is on an absolute Tiger-like tear: six starts in a two-month stretch, four of them victories. The future is limitle …
Stop. What happened here this week — brilliant golf from Scheffler, concluding with Sunday’s steely-until-the-last 71 that left him at 10 under par and was enough to win by three — is about this week and this week only. It’s no exaggeration to say it changed Scheffler’s life. It’s also no exaggeration to say it means nothing for next month at the PGA Championship, nothing for next year at Augusta National Golf Club — other than that he will host the champions dinner.
There is so much to like about what Scheffler did, so much to admire about how he did it, that there is a temptation to say the following: This isn’t just a major championship. This is the first major of how many?
Don’t take the bait. It’s not at all to say he can’t. It’s just to say there’s no way to know whether he will.
“I’ve never been a guy that likes to look too far into the future,” Scheffler said. “For me, just staying present is what works best for me.”
Well done, then. None other than Tiger Woods identified the space Scheffler now occupies: a window. No one has enjoyed more windows than Woods, unpredictable stretches of time when the game is impervious to all outside influences and majors stand in the way. There’s no telling when one will open. There’s even less predicting when it will slam shut.
Woods’s reminiscence came from all the way back in 1992, when his current caddie, Joe LaCava, was working the bag of Fred Couples. In the March leading into Augusta, Couples won at Riviera, then at Bay Hill and lost a playoff in another tournament. That’s a window.
“Ended up here,” Woods said, “and won the Masters. Scottie’s doing the same thing. … We all wish we had that two-, three-month window when we get hot, and hopefully majors fall somewhere along in that window.”
The key word there: hopefully. The problem is that the list of what can go wrong — from an unforeseen flaw in the swing to an unshakable doubt in the brain — is as long or longer than what needs to go right to sustain such a run. Scheffler is playing the best golf in the world right now. What we know about that: There’s an expiration date on it.
This week’s Masters was the 24th major since the start of 2016. Scheffler is the 19th different winner. The only repeaters over that time: Brooks Koepka, who crammed four victories into a nine-major stretch (quite a window); Dustin Johnson, whose talent is such that more majors than his two would have seemed likely but whose five runner-up finishes display the difficulty of the task; and Collin Morikawa, who just completed his ninth major — and has won two of them.
So maybe it’s easy to say that, in 10 years, Morikawa will have — pick a number — five more majors? Doesn’t sound unreasonable, given that he’s only 25, just finished fifth at the Masters and that would represent just one major victory every other year for a decade. It doesn’t sound unreasonable — until you realize that that would give him seven majors, which equals the career of Arnold Palmer and Sam Snead.
This is hard. Think of it this way: Rory McIlroy closed 2014 by winning the British Open and the PGA Championship, his third and fourth major victories. Here is the assessment of one retired golfer — he goes by Jack Nicklaus — of McIlroy in between those tournaments:
“I think Rory has an opportunity to win 15 or 20 majors or whatever he wants to do if he wants to keep playing,” Nicklaus said in a radio interview back then.
Nicklaus should know better. McIlroy is now 32. This will go down as his best Masters because he closed it with a 64 on Sunday that finished with an exhilarating hole-out from the bunker for a birdie at 18 that left him three behind Scheffler. Yet he departs 0 for 14 at Augusta.
“I’ve always known that I can do it,” McIlroy said. “I’ve played good enough around here. Maybe just haven’t strung four rounds together like that. But I’ve always known that I have the game to win at this place. It’s just a matter of having that game for four days in a row.”
The point: It’s just so hard. If, at the end of 2014, Vegas had offered wagers on the number of majors McIlroy would win over the next seven years — Two? Three? Five? — maybe the longest odds would have been for zero. Yet here we are.
He’s not alone. In 2014, Jordan Spieth debuted at the Masters by nearly winning the thing — tying for second. The next year, he did win it — and followed it up by taking the U.S. Open, tying for fourth at the British Open, becoming the runner-up at the PGA and tying for second at the 2016 Masters. When he won the British Open in 2017, he had crammed six top-four finishes into an 11-major stretch.
What it looked like then was a legendary career in the making. What it looks like now — with 17 majors since his last victory, with a missed cut this week at Augusta and no idea as to when or if the next might come — is a window.
Koepka had his — and may well have more. But at 31, his body has already broken down enough that he has missed time. There’s such a list of uber-talented, still-young players for whom it would have been easy to ascribe multiple majors: Justin Thomas and Jason Day, Bryson DeChambeau and Jon Rahm, Patrick Reed and Francesco Molinari. They all have one. There are 40-somethings — Justin Rose and Adam Scott, Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia — for whom it happened once and never again.
There’s no shame in that. But there is reality. The stress of finishing one of these off is real. The hardest part of Scheffler’s Sunday wasn’t the tee shot at the par-3 12th. It was the interminable wait leading up to his tee time.
“I cried like a baby this morning,” he said. “I was so stressed out. I didn’t know what to do.”
He said to Meredith, his wife, “I don’t think I’m ready for this.”
This week, he was ready. The window was open, and he climbed right through.
“We take care of it in those windows,” Woods said. “Scottie seems to be in that window right now.”
How long will it last? That’s not the important part. The important part is that it happened. Scottie Scheffler is a Masters champion, and that is an accomplishment that will be with him eternally. Just don’t get caught up in granting him more accomplishments — yet. Not because of any flaw in his game or his mind. Just because of the enormity of the task.
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