AUGUSTA, Ga. — A big lead in a big tournament is a beautiful thing. It can also be a big burden.
As Scottie Scheffler bids to win his first major championship at the 86th Masters, he faced the mounting pressure of the moment, while still stretching his margin over his teammates in Saturday’s third round. The lanky Texan, golf’s hottest player, started the day with a record five-stroke lead, extended it to six on several occasions and settled for a three-stroke advantage over Cam Smith after having dumped a minus 71 at Augusta National Golf Club.
Over the course of a few hours on a cloudy, cold, and windy afternoon, the challenges Scheffler faced in protecting such a huge advantage, staying fit and in the moment, and trying to maintain that mental edge were all apparent in Difficult conditions. Golf is always a battle both inside and against the golf course, but it’s a strange circumstance to play so well at the same time while fighting a creeping sense of unease.
Sergio Garcia, who won the 2017 Masters, best assessed the task facing world No. 1 Scheffler as he seeks his fourth win in his last six starts.
“If he’s playing anywhere near the way he’s been playing all year, he should win it. It’s as simple as that,” Garcia said as Scheffler was up six, although the valuation still holds true with his lead halved with 18 holes remaining.
In the next breath, however, Garcia countered that it was far from simple. “You know, it’s never easy because he’s going to do his first major, it’s Augusta, and all that comes with it. But he’s playing really well.
Well, sure, that’s how he rose to a position of command with a total of nine under 207. But there’s still work to be done. Hard work. Heartbreaking and heartbreaking work.
Garcia understands. He once gave up a six-shot lead after 54 holes at the 2005 Wachovia Championship at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, matching the biggest slump in PGA Tour history. Four others share the dubious mark, including Greg Norman at the 1996 Masters.
“Sometimes it’s harder to play with a big lead,” said Vijay Singh, the 2000 Masters winner, after catching Garcia at Quail Hollow with a final round 66 and then winning in a playoff that also included Jim Furyk. “I discovered it myself. Instead of trying to win the golf tournament, you don’t want to lose it. If the guys catch up. . . you begin to get nervous.
“Probably the most nervous nights I’ve had and the most nervous rounds I’ve had are on top,” said Justin Thomas, who will start Sunday eight behind Scheffler in a tie for sixth after a third round 72. this day, playing Sony [Open] in 17 was one of the most difficult. All I’ve heard is that no one has ever lost a seven-stroke lead on the PGA Tour. So it was hard. »
Webb Simpson enjoyed a seven-stroke lead at The Players Championship 2018 and with a pedestrian 73 picked up a four-stroke victory over Charl Schwartzel, who happens to be seven strokes behind Scheffler while seeking his second green jacket.
“You have to keep doing what you’re doing, keep being aggressive and keep the hammer down, because that’s how you played to get into such a good position – you were smart and aggressive,” said Simpson. “In Scottie’s case, he has a great caddy [Ted Scott] which will benefit him, he is playing well and he has had success recently. It would be difficult to bet against him.
Simpson said his game plan at TPC Sawgrass was to play “normal golf” for a good chunk of the final round and then reassess things. “We wanted to get to 12 or 13 and see where we were, and if we needed to, we could adjust,” he explained. “If we were only two ahead then we wanted to keep birdying, and if we were still six or seven ahead then we were going to play more conservatively.”
Just two years ago, Dustin Johnson took a four-shot lead in the final round of that unique November Masters. He was world No. 1 and was playing well, and he went on to win by five over Smith and Sungjae Im. But he later revealed he had never been so restless and uncomfortable trying to close out his second major title.
Form matters, and Scheffler is unquestionably in good shape with his game. But so is recent Players Championship winner Smith.
Tiger Woods, who knows a bit about closing 54-hole courses and huge winning margins – 12 shots here at Augusta National in 1997 (after leading by nine), 15 at the 2000 US Open – understands as well as anyone value taking care of business when business is good. Which, in his case, was oddly often.
” The way he [Scheffler] played… that’s kind of what we used to talk about in practice rounds with… Fred [Couples] in 92, right? He had a hot little streak just before that. He won Bay Hill, lost in the playoffs to Corey [Pavin]finished west coast hot, played hot in Florida, ended up here and won the Masters.
“Scottie does the same thing. We all wish we had that two or three month window when we get hot and hopefully the majors fall somewhere within that window. We take care of it in these windows. Scottie seems to be in that window right now.
Of recent vintage players, Thomas was in that window in 2017. Johnson was in that window. Jordan Spieth was there in 2015, as was Jason Day. Woods almost never left this window in his prime.
Kevin Kisner repeated on Saturday the advice he gave Scheffler after falling to him in the WGC-Dell Technologies final. “Enjoy the ride for as long as you can because you never know when it’s going to end,” Kisner said. “Looks like he’s taking my advice pretty well.”
Of course, no one can tell Scheffler how to do it on Sunday. Yes, he has won a lot recently, but as Garcia said, it’s different. This is Augusta, and everything that goes with it is at stake. It must be a feeling of loneliness.
“You just have to take it for what it is,” Thomas said. “I know one thing, any advice I have, I’m definitely not going to say now.”
The opportunity is there. The same goes for all the pressure.