Scottie Scheffler Takes Firm Control Of The Players Championship With a Seven-Under 65 At TPC Sawgrass
PONTE VEDRA BEACH — In this age of launch monitors, data-driven course management systems and carpety greens, golf courses have precious few defenses against the best players in the world. Firmness plays a huge role. So does wind. TPC Sawgrass had both early in the week, which is why there was so many high numbers through two rounds at the Players Championship—players were greeted by a springier course and juicier rough than normal, and a pesky breeze drove the cut line up to 2 over.
That cut didn't happen until Saturday morning, the product of a thunderstorm that ripped through Ponte Vedra Beach around 4 p.m. on Friday afternoon. It gave the early-late wave a considerable break—conditions were at their trickiest when the horn sounded, and they returned Saturday to an much gentler golf course to finish their second rounds. Overnight rain had softened the greens considerably, and the wind enjoyed a Saturday off-day. That, combined with far more accessible pins—Aaron Rai took advantage of one to make the second ace on 17 this week—gave Saturday an entirely different feel. Multiple players flirted with the course record before Tom Hoge, who made the cut on the number, finally broke it by birdieing his final two holes for a 10-under 62. It was a 16-shot improvement from his 78 on Thursday. But again, that was a different golf course.
"That rain changed the course dramatically and obviously we're seeing that reflected in the scores," Jordan Spieth, who shot 66, said. "So a lot of times on this golf course when you're quite a ways back and you shoot a good Saturday round you move way up. I know that I did just that, but the way it's playing it's going to be more and more challenging for someone to come from way behind. But tomorrow's going to be windy and maybe drys it out a little bit and try and shoot another one of those tomorrow and see what happens."
Spieth is a full eight shots behind Scottie Scheffler's lead after the reigning Masters champion took firm control of this tournament with a 65 that was remarkable for how unremarkable it was. Scheffler got off to the best start possible by birdieing the first hole and chipping in for eagle at the second, which brought him above 10 chip-ins for the year—which means his caddie, Ted Scott, owes him something he didn't want to share with media.
More importantly, it jumpstarted a round that borught him to 14 under total, and he now holds a two-shot lead over Min Woo Lee, a hugely talented player with a picture-perfect golf swing and a great resume in Europe. But the 24-year-old Australian will be a massive underdog considering Scheffler's pedigree and his relative inexperience, at least on this side of the pond. Two shots further back is Cameron Davis, who impressed at last year's Presidents Cup but came into this week off five consecutive missed cuts. Tommy Fleetwood, Aaron Rai, Chad Ramey and Christiaan Bezuidenhout are on the edge of contention at five back.
A random name generator couldn't have produced a more unpredictable leaderboard than this one. Apart from Scottie, that is. He's been a consistent force on the first page of leaderboards for the past 14 months, and his presence atop this one adds a dose of familiarity to what's been a quirky week. He is the clear favorite to win his sixth PGA Tour event and second designated event of this season.
"I prepare to be in these moments. I prepare to come out here and play well. So when I'm at home getting ready for tournaments, I'm hopeful that I'm going to be in this position, and I've been fortunate so far this year that the hard work is continuing to pay off. I've been on a lot of leaderboards, and I've said it a few times, it's a lot of more fun being in the lead than it is being in 20th going into today and shooting 2-under and finishing 30th or whatever it is. It's a lot more fun being in the arena and being in the moment."
Lee was similarly pumped for the biggest opportunity of his young career. It'll be a stiffer test with winds expected to be in the 20 mph range for the final afternoon. A solid round would likely earn him special temporary membership on the PGA Tour, which is his goal. He tried to get his PGA Tour card by playing the three-event Korn Ferry Tour Finals last year but missed the cut in two of them, which made his decision for him: back to Europe. But he squeaked into this field by being in the top 50 in the world rankings, presenting an opportunity to change his trajectory in one week. A win would instantly catapult his golfing life to a new dimension.
"I obviously played the majors last year and played really well in them," Lee said. He finished T-14 at the Masters, missed the cut at the PGA Championship and the U.S. Open and took T-21 at the Open. Scheffler won the Masters, missed the cut at the PGA, was runner-up at the U.S. Open and matched Lee with a T-21 at the Open. Really well is a relative term in this game.
Back to Lee: "I definitely felt like I had the potential to be up there (in the majors). Obviously guys are playing really good and have such good stretches. But, yeah, I was just hoping for a week like this and to play really good golf and not too many mistakes. So a lot, every golfer is looking for a week like this and hopefully I can play well tomorrow."
Tommy Fleetwood gave him, by Northern English standards, the kindest compliment possible: "He's a proper player."
So is Scottie, though. So is Scottie.