Scottie Scheffler’s startling implosion opens up $18 million free-for-all
Chasing the perfect format for the season-ending Tour Championship means maintaining a delicate balance.
If you give the No. 1 seed too big an advantage and he runs away with it, you’re left with a boring tournament bereft of weekend drama. A dud finale is a nightmare for the Tour.
But if the format makes it so that anyone can win, the chances of a relatively random player lifting the FedEx Cup increase dramatically. Should one hot week really be enough to make you a season-long champ?
It appears as though this year’s Tour Championship might find the sweet spot right in the middle, where red-hot outsiders mix it up with season-long studs at the top of the leaderboard. But it took a surprising back-nine implosion from the best golfer in the world to get there.
Scottie Scheffler began the day with a two-shot advantage over second place and a larger advantage over the rest of the field, his reward for a season spent racking up more FedEx Cup points than anyone else. Then he made a statement birdie at No. 1. And another at No. 4. And another at No. 6. Suddenly he was three under for the day, 13 under on the leaderboard and five shots clear of the field. Scheffler lost a six-shot lead in the final round last year, so we should know better than to call it early — but a certain inevitability hung in the air, mixing with the oppressive humidity.
It didn’t stay that way for long.
Scheffler hit it to 35 feet on the 8th green, left his first putt eight feet short and missed his par putt. He bounced back with a birdie at No. 10 but three-putted 11 for another bogey. He pulled his tee shot into a fairway bunker at No. 12, caught the lip on the way out and made another bogey. He pulled his tee shots on 13 and 14 into the left rough, too, but salvaged pars from there. His pull-hook off the 15th tee was far more costly; the par-3 is surrounded by water. Scheffler splashed his tee shot, dropped, hit the green and three-putted for triple bogey. In less than nine holes he’d gone from five shots up to two shots down.
He may have saved the tournament in the process.
Just five players started the day within five shots of the lead. By day’s end there were 16. Half the field — probably more! — now has a fighting chance at the $18 million first prize. We’re in for a banner weekend.
Collin Morikawa inserted himself in the proceedings with a blistering nine-under 61 to jump from his starting position — nine shots off the lead — into the final pairing, tied for the lead at 10 under par.
“It feels great,” said Morikawa, whose year has been frustrating by his lofty standards. “Shoot, no better time, I guess, than our Tour Championship to show up and start playing some golf.”
Keegan Bradley began the day seven off the lead. He shot seven under. He’ll join Morikawa in that final tee time. He’s playing for the Tour’s biggest prize but he’s playing for something arguably more important to him, too: a Ryder Cup berth.
“I try my hardest to not think of the Ryder Cup, but everybody asks me about it. And as I’m walking down the fairways everyone’s yelling to me about it. So it’s impossible for me to not think about it,” he said. “I got to think, a two-year qualifying process, with the tournament a month away, I don’t think everything is based on this tournament. But it might be. So, better to go play well than to not.”
Last week’s BMW Championship winner Viktor Hovland began the day two off the lead. While the putts of both he and his playing partner Scheffler seemed allergic to the hole — they finished second-to-last and last in putting, respectively — Hovland hit it well and chipped it even better en route to a bogey-free round of two-under 68.
“Obviously bogey-free is always nice, especially around this track,” he said. “But I did feel like I left a couple putts out there and — yeah, I felt like I played a little bit better than the score, but hopefully that comes tomorrow or the rest of the week.”
Scheffler didn’t hang his head for long after the triple bogey at 15; he gave himself birdie tries of 10, 8 and 11 feet on the final three holes. Even though only one of those went in — Scheffler lost 3.2 strokes putting throughout the day — he finished the day at nine under, just one shot off the lead. He’ll play with Hovland once again.
“I’m obviously pretty frustrated with how I played today,” Scheffler said post-round. “I got off to a pretty good start, and then — I had a few 3-putts today, which definitely is frustrating, and then I had the bad swing there on the par-3, 15.”
Scheffler admitted it had been “a bit weird” starting the tournament with a two-stroke lead but didn’t lean on that as an excuse.
“I guess it’s a little bit of a blessing to have a pretty bad day and still be in the tournament. So, yeah, go out there tomorrow and just keep fighting,” he said.
Morikawa wasn’t the only one in his group to get it going; playing partner Adam Schenk shot seven-under 63 to climb to eight under par. He’s joined there by Russell Henley, who birdied four of the final five holes to shoot 65.
A trio of European Ryder Cuppers lurks at seven under par. There’s Rory McIlroy, who began the day in third place but winced his way through a back injury all day that made his even-par 70 seem much more impressive than the raw number. There’s Jon Rahm, who leaked bogeys on 13-14-15 before finishing birdie-birdie for 69. And then there’s Matt Fitzpatrick, who finished T2 last week and played a ho-hum round before eagle at 18 left him with 67.
It hardly thins out after that; four more Ryder Cuppers (Tyrrell Hatton, Xander Schauffele, Wyndham Clark, Brian Harman) sit at six under, while Rickie Fowler, Patrick Cantlay and Tom Kim are just a shot further back.
Four more players at four under par mean that fully two-thirds of the field is within six shots of the lead.
Three days to go. $18 million on the line.