By Stephen Delaney Hale
Photos courtesy of Augusta National Golf Club
In the world of sports, the Masters Tournament ranks as some of the highest television viewer ratings for any programming. That is for several reasons — the beauty of the Augusta National Golf Club certainly plays a major role. For millions, the tall pine trees and vibrant flora surrounding the course are the signals that spring has arrived.
The 2022 tournament brought a renewed feeling of normalcy post-pandemic. The full field of spectators, the Masters calls them patrons, were lining the fairways once again, and golf’s familiar favorites returned to Augusta, all seeking the coveted Green Jacket.
But in the end, a new face joined the club of Masters champions. Texas native Scottie Scheffler had a amazing season winning four PGA Tour events with the Masters becoming his first major. The golf world eagerly awaits to see who reigns supreme this year.
On The Rise
Like a rocket fired across the PGA Tour in 2022, 3rd-year tour member Scottie Scheffler won four out of six tournaments near the start of the season, including the Masters. Scheffler was named No. 1 in the Official World Golf Rankings after his third win, at the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play, defeating Aiken, S.C. native Kevin Kisner in the finals. He had already won the always raucous WM Phoenix Open, in a playoff with tour star Patrick Cantlay, and within three weeks, he won the Arnold Palmer Invitational at the always difficult Bay Hill Golf Course for his second career tour win.
The winning streak was over for the year, but Scheffler still posted some “near-great” finishes. A month after his win in Augusta, Scheffler lost a playoff at the Charles Schwab Challenge to one of his best friends on tour, Sam Burns. The following month, he tied for second by one stroke to Matt Fitzpatrick at the U.S. Open.
Everybody should have seen this rocket rising. Scheffler got his 2020 PGA Tour card after being named the 2019 Korn Ferry Tour Player of the Year. He soon tied for 4th in the 2020 PGA Championship and finished in the top-10 in six of his next nine major tournament starts. After watching him be named the 2022 PGA Tour Player of the Year and receiving the Jack Nicklaus Award, who would fail to pick Scheffler in the Masters?
Well, a few did, but rational people – meaning those who don’t bet — went with Scheffler. Some impressive players left a trail for him, winning the Masters while holding the World No. 1 title: Ian Woosnam in 1991, Fred Couples the following year, Tiger Woods (twice) in 2001 and 2002, and Dustin Johnson in 2020. Scheffler became the second player ever to win that many tournaments, including the Masters, to start a season since that iconic figure of golf, Arnold Palmer, won the second of his four Masters Tournaments, 62 years earlier, in 1960.
At the Masters, the meanings of history and tradition are synonymous. Those virtues came to life and walked onto the first tee early Thursday morning. Legends Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tom Watson took their respective places on the first tee.
Representing 11 Masters victories, and several of the most exciting – Watson won twice, including 1977 when he shot a final round 67 to defeat Jack Nicklaus by two strokes; Player won three, including in 1961 by one stroke over Arnold Palmer and in 1978 in one of the greatest final rounds with an 8-under 64, still tied as the lowest final round by a winner; and Nicklaus in 1986, widely considered the most exciting Masters when he, too, shot a 64 on Sunday to win by one stroke over Tom Watson, Hubert Green and Rod Funseth.
For their 7:45 a.m. tee time, the trio acted more like awe-struck teens than the giants of the sport that they have become. Always full of mock bravado, Player crowed about how he was going to outdrive the others. Nicklaus wondered aloud about how nervous he was and as to whether he could hit the ball or even get the tee in the ground, and Watson gushed at how he didn’t deserve to be out there with that company, but that he was eternally grateful to Augusta National for inviting him to join for the ceremonial shot.
Thursday | Day 1
Mostly sunny with a morning thunderstorm. A high temperature of 74, and a steady wind of 10 to 15 mph with gusts of 25.
Scheffler got off to a nice start in the 2022 Masters Tournament, finishing Thursday’s play at three-under par 69. But he wasn’t the story yet. He finished the day two strokes behind Sungjae Im and one behind Cameron Smith. Im became the first Korean player to hold the lead after any round at the Masters, with his five-under-par 67. Im birdied his first three holes and was soon four under. But bogeys at the start of Amen Corner failed to daunt him. Just down the creek at the par-5 13th, Im hit his approach shot to 12 feet and made the putt for eagle before birdieing the par-5 15th to take sole possession of the lead.
As for being the first Korean to lead after a round at the Masters, Im responded through an interpreter, “Records are always great, but I try not to think about them. There are three more days to play, and I have to be prepared to do the same thing.”
“Records are always great, but I try not to think about them. There are three more days to play, and I have to be prepared to do the same thing.”
Smith, of Australia, who finished tied for second with Im in 2020, opened with a double bogey on the first hole. Four holes later, Smith began a streak of eight-under-par over the next 12 holes, starting with a chip-in birdie at the fifth. He made birdie with a five-foot putt at the classic 16th hole to lead the tournament at minus-six. But another double bogey at No. 18 reeled him back to four-under, and he finished the day one stroke behind Im.
No. 1 Scheffler did not make a bogey until the 18th hole in a 3-under-par round of 69. He was in a group tied for third place, which also included past champions Dustin Johnson and Danny Willett, as well as Chilean Joaquim Niemann, who holed out for an eagle on the par-4 ninth hole.
At -2 in a tie for 7th were Canadian Corey Conners and Americans Patrick Cantlay and Jason Kokrak.
Harold Varner III, in his Masters debut, went four-under-par in a 4-hole stretch from the 13th to the 16th, including a near albatross (for the folks around the country who are just watching for the signs of spring, that’s a double-eagle, a 2 on a par-5) hitting from the pine straw at the 13th. He finished with a one-under-par 71. Tied with Varner four strokes behind were Daniel Berger, Tony Finau, Matt Fitzpatrick, Harry Higgs, Kevin Na, Will Zalatoris and Webb Simpson.
Also tied for 10th was Tiger Woods, who was playing in his first tournament since the 2020 Masters. He suffered severe injuries from a car accident in late February 2021 which left him unsure he would ever return to professional golf. Defending champion Hideki Matsuyama shot an even-par 72.
Friday | Day 2
Mostly Sunny and steady winds of 15 to 20 mph, gusts of up 30.
On a cold day with wind gusts that made choosing the correct club extremely important, Scottie Scheffler had a strong second round, shooting a five-under 67. That put him at eight under and already five strokes ahead of an all-international foursome.
First-round leader Sungjae Im began to drift off with a plus-two round of 74 to reach -3, totaling 141 after the second round. He was tied with an all-star cast who all had good rounds for Friday’s conditions, including defending Masters Champion Hideki Matsuyama from Japan (69), 2019 Open Champion Irishman Shane Lowry (68) and 2011 Masters Champion South African Charl Schwartzel (69).
Being the first of the four players to reach 141 elevated Schwartzel to the final group on Saturday.
Another star-studded foursome lurked six strokes behind Scheffler, including the 2020 Masters Champion and 2016 U.S. Open winner Dustin Johnson, Australian Cameron Smith, who had won the 2022 Open Championship and had finished in the top 10 in the past three Masters Tournaments, Kevin Na and Harold Varner III, who both finished the day with matching one-under 71 and minus-2 142.
One more stroke back at one under 143 were 2016 Master Champion Englishman Danny Willett, Canadian Corey Conners and South African Joaquin Niemann. Also, at -1 were Americans Collin Morikawa, Will Zalatoris and two-time PGA Champion, Justin Thomas, whose 67 tied Scheffler for the low round of the day.
After a +2 74 on Friday, and 11 shots back, was the clearly still injured Tiger Woods. That was probably too far back, even for Wonder Man.
All of the players under par knew that the Masters was known for its stirring “come-from-behind” victories. They also all knew that the spectacular golf that was going to catch Scheffler needed to start Saturday.
Somewhat like reading an obituary page, every year in the Saturday edition of The Augusta Chronicle is the list of players who missed the cut by taking too many strokes the first two days. Fifty-two players made the cut at 4-over 148, not among them and without a tee-time on Saturday were 2015 Masters Champion Jordan Spieth, 2019 runners-up Brooks Koepka and Xander Schauffele, as well as 2020 U.S. Open Champion Bryson DeChambeau.
Saturday | Day 3
Cloudy, high of 56, winds of 12 to 16 mph with gusts up to 20.
Saturday afternoon, it was all but over when Scottie Scheffler played well posting four birdies on the leaderboard on his front nine. He made the turn after expanding his lead to six. But the back nine at Augusta, famous for water-logged disasters, displayed its smooth, tranquil-looking teeth.
After a scary bogey from the front bunker on the treacherous No. 12, he righted his ship with a one-putt birdie on the 13th and then made bogey on both Nos. 14 and 15. Was this the breakdown that many in the gallery had been predicting? The remaining golf would tell, but it meant his near-perfect golf had suffered three bogies on his last four holes.
He picked up a birdie at No. 17, but a hook off the tee at No. 18 led to a penalty drop and another bogey. He was now nine under at 71 for the day.
His lead over Cameron Smith was clipped to three strokes.
The personal feelings for late rounds in a golf tournament can be agonizing and “in your face.” Your adversary is right there with you for every stroke, usually for five hours or more. You know you have to hit it perfectly, every time. The more times you hit it perfectly, the fewer times you have to hit it — which is, after all, the point of it all.
Smith got that close, cutting his deficit in half from six strokes to three when he shot a sterling 68, the low round of the day by two strokes.
Smith caught fire in the middle of the round, going five under from the sixth hole through the 15th. A bogey at the 16th left him three behind, but the round put him in the final pairing, the marquee on one of the greatest stages in golf, Sunday at the Masters.
Sungjae Im matched Scheffler’s 71, helping him gain ground on most of the rest of the field at four under and five behind. Playing in the final group on Saturday with Scheffler was former Masters Champion Charl Schwartzel. Schwartzel matched recent Open Champion Shane Lowry with a pair of 73s, leaving them seven behind.
Corey Conners and Justin Thomas matched rounds of even-par 72 and were tied with each other sharing 6th place eight strokes behind, and Danny Willett managed a one-over 73, to come in at even-par 216.
For the first time in the week, the name of gallery favorite Rory McIlroy’s made the leaderboard, but those scores of 73, 73, and 71 left him at +1 and 10 behind, surely too far back to make a run at the rocket.
Five-time Masters Champion Tiger Woods struggled on the greens and posted a 78, his worst ever at the Masters.
Championship Round Sunday | Day 4
Sunny. High of 73 with winds of 6 to 12 mph.
Many claim it’s a mystical thing, Sunday at Augusta.
Every big-time, globe-trotting star harbors inside him the boy who used to play on the practice green for hours, first as the CBS announcer and then as himself, “This putt is for the win at the Masters and the Green Jacket.”
It’s like that at the Super Bowl, the Alpine Skiing World Championship, or especially down to one player at the free-throw line to win a national championship. But none is really quite like a golf championship where a player has been followed all day by world network cameras, and finally, surrounded by thousands, it is just him, the 18th green and the job at hand.
Make it, and you are in the history books forever.
That was a sense of what it was from the start, walking up on the tee at the first hole and hoping your hand doesn’t shake when you put your first tee in the ground. Then, with three or four thousand people standing there, you have to hit it, hard and straight. It’s good that you have to hit it hard because that calms the nerves for hitting it straight.
Not adding to a sense of calm, no doubt Scottie Scheffler could hear the roars coming off the clubfaces of Rory McIlroy. McIlroy had it to four under on the front nine and then chipped it in for another birdie from over the green on No. 10. That miss above the hole usually ends with a bogey, but the immensely talented McIlroy wrestled two strokes out of that hole. Surely the leprechauns were with the bouncing Irishman.
That roar from the thousands of McIlroy fans shook the tallest pine trees on the course at No. 10. But it almost paled in comparison to the one that he wrenched from their throats on the classic par-five No. 13 when he sank a putt for eagle!
He had saved one last shock for his swarming galleries when he hit what was probably the most dramatic shot of the tournament — his third shot at the 18th erupted from the right greenside bunker before rolling into the cup for birdie. But after his faithful gallery had settled, all realized that he had been too far back after all. Yet for them, it was a glorious day all the same.
McIlroy had just shot the only bogey-free round of any player during the entire tournament. That gave him a 64, (-8), tied for the lowest final-round score in the history of the tournament. He finished at seven-under, which left him alone in second, his best finish at the Masters, the only tournament of the four majors that he has yet to notch into his belt. But for the faithful optimist that he is, 2023 brings another Masters.
In spite of some rocky moments, Scheffler proved himself up to the moment.
At times he looked like he might shoot McIlroy and Cameron Smith back into the fray, but he righted himself to finish a 71, winning his first Masters and major championship by three shots.
Right out of the gate, Scheffler saw his three-shot lead whittled down to one when Smith dismissed holes No. 1 and 2 with opening birdies.
But all seemed back in sync when Scheffler chipped in for birdie and Smith chipped long for bogey at No. 3. Smith also made bogey at No. 4, and they both posted birdies on No. 7. Then two sets of pars left Scheffler ahead by four strokes with nine to go — sounds like Saturday déjà vu.
After both made bogey on the 10th, Smith made a putt on the 11th, once again the pair were separated by three.
Teeing off first on the devilish par-3 number 12, Smith splashed his tee shot into the pond, took a penalty drop chipped long and recorded a triple-bogey, which effectively put him out of contention when Scheffler made an up-and-down par.
Scheffler made a five-foot birdie putt on No. 14, changing his score to 11-under, then got it up and down for birdie on the par-5 15th to stretch his lead back to five, although now it was over McIlroy, not Smith.
Scheffler finished with a meaningless four-putt double bogey on the 18th, posting a 10-under 134 and a victory of three strokes over McIlroy and five over Smith and Shane Lowry. Collin Morikawa finished in fifth, Corey Conners and Will Zalatoris in a tie for sixth. Justin Thomas and Sungjae Im tied for eighth, nine strokes back.
In his news conference following his champion’s ceremony and the presentation of his coveted Green Jacket, Scheffler gave the press and the public a view into the pressure on golfers on the precipice of glory or failure.
“This morning was a totally different story,” Scheffler told the media about his Sunday morning fears. “I cried like a baby this morning. I was so stressed out. I didn’t know what to do. I was sitting there telling Meredith, ‘I don’t think I’m ready for this. I’m not ready, I don’t feel like I’m ready for this kind of stuff, and I just felt overwhelmed.’”
Then he opened up to the media about the comforting view of life and love that his wife Meredith gave him.
“Meredith told me, ‘if you win this golf tournament today, if you lose this golf tournament by ten shots, if you never win another golf tournament again; I’m still going to love you, you’re still going to be the same person, Jesus loves you, and nothing changes.”
“… if you never win another golf tournament again; I’m still going to love you, you’re still going to be the same person, Jesus loves you, and nothing changes.”
Now he was ready for whatever the day brought.
The Masters victory and three earlier wins stamped Scheffler as a formidable force early in his third year on tour. He and McIlroy developed a friendly rivalry throughout the year, with McIlroy finally getting the upper hand when he won the Tour Championship, and the FedExCup, and Scheffler was voted tour player of the year.
McIlroy was right when he said not to worry; there will be another Masters in 2023. Spring will come again and the Masters will welcome it for all of us.
Appears in the April 2023 issue of Augusta Magazine
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