The kid looks rock solid, but we’ve all been wrong before on Saturday night.
Scottie Scheffler has a three-shot lead on the eve of championship Sunday at the 2022 Masters and looks unflappable. Completely in control of his game and emotions, Scheffler’s downright artistic rounds of 69-67-71 in the swirling gusts Augusta National has conjured for the field has him at 9-under total and looking for all the world like Sunday will be a coronation. There are only two players within five shots of him: Cameron Smith (6-under) and Sungjae Im (4-under), neither of whom has won a major, but both of whom have been tantalizingly close at this venue in November 2020.
Does destiny have Scheffler right where it wants him?
Usually, we’d say yes. Look at all the three-, four- and even five-shot leads that have been lost at majors -- particularly the Masters -- and not by journeyman pros who stumbled into the lead. We’re talking Hall of Famers, even legends.
Of course Greg Norman tops the list. In 1996, he slept on a six shot lead. This was Norman, the Great White Shark, the 1986 and 1993 Open Champion, a player who spent a whopping 331 weeks ranked No. 1 in the world.
Six shots behind Norman? That’s not a mountain to climb; that’s a Himalayan expedition.
But this was also the same Norman who in that ’86 season led all four majors going into Sunday play only to win just one. It was the same Norman who had a bad habit in majors of turning the carriage back into a pumpkin at all the wrong times. And of his eight runner-up finishes in majors, the ’96 Masters had to hurt the worst.
Never in control of his game from the start, the stretch of nine through 12 not only gutted the Shark, but filleted him into four pieces of perfectly sliced sashimi: bogey, bogey, bogey, double bogey. Sir Nick Faldo walked off with the green jacket, and Norman was served with soy, wasabi and a side of sunomono, posterized at Augusta National forever, the Masters’ Craig Ehlo.
History tends to repeat itself, so consider the similar cases of Ken Venturi in 1956 and Rory McIlroy in 2011.
In ’56, Venturi went to bed in the Crow’s Nest with a four-shot lead.
The Crow’s Nest houses the amateurs for the week. You read that correctly: Amidst the likes of Hogan, Snead, Palmer, Middlecoff and Bolt, an amateur was poised to win the Masters. But the back nine on Sunday turned blustery, and with bogeys at 9, 10, 11, 12, 14 and 17, Venturi shot 80 and lost to Jackie Burke Jr. by one.
Similarly, in 2011, Rory McIlroy was heralded as golf’s next poster boy, successor or even foil to mighty Tiger Woods. He also held a four-shot lead as he went to bed on Saturday. After a two-shot swing on the first hole, followed by a slam-dunk eagle at the third by the eventual winner, Charl Schwartzel of South Africa, and we were tied after three holes.
That’s how fast a four-shot swing can happen: one bad decision and one bad swing – PRESTO! – we’re tied. A rout turned into a dogfight, and one dog in particular looks in trouble.
Sure enough, Rory played holes 10-12 in triple bogey-bogey-double bogey and was never a factor after that. Schwartzel went on to birdie the last four holes of the tournament and hold off Jason Day, Adam Scott, Luke Donald, Geoff Ogilvy, Tiger Woods and Angel Cabrera.
The chasers only had 20 major championships between them, not for nothing.
And then, of course, there’s Jordan Spieth. While he didn’t sleep on a large lead in 2016, he looked a lock to defend his title with a five-shot lead with just nine holes to play. But over that same stretch -- 10-11-12 –- he went bogey-bogey-quadruple – and put the green jacket on the shoulders of England’s Danny Willett instead.
Willett is, in fact, going quietly this week. His score of even-par 216 is nine shots behind Scheffler, but Faldo won in ’96 with an 11-shot swing. If Willett posts 66, he could sneak into a playoff should Scheffler unravel. Likewise, Schwatrzel has also played well, posting 2-under 214 for three days.
“I’ve been watching reruns of my win in 2011, and it inspired me,” he told the assembled media at his Thursday presser. He’s seven shots back, along with Shane Lowry, winner of the 2019 Open Championship.
Even Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus had their share of shocking failure and disappointment. In 1961 after a rousing birdie at the 16th gave Palmer a one-shot lead, some unfortunate in the gallery shouted, “Make way for the champion!”
You know what happened next. Palmer double-bogeyed the 18th, turning an otherwise negotiable hole into chopped salad, handing the green jacket to an astonished but grateful Gary Player.
Worse still, Nicklaus came to Augusta in 1971 seeking the second leg of the Grand Slam. Yes, you read that correctly – in 1971 they played the PGA Championship in verdant February Florida weather, and Nicklaus had won in a rout.
But Nicklaus played the par 5s on the back nine in 2 over par, handing the championship -- and a lifetime honorary membership to Augusta National to Charles Coody.
Don’t feel bad it you can’t pick out Charles Coody in the pictures of Champions Dinner, by the way. He’s so unknown, he wouldn’t stand out in a photo of Foo Fighters.
And now we turn to this Sunday in 2022 and, perhaps, the dawning of a new era. Scheffler has been the only true standout this week. But there are 18 long, treacherous holes at Augusta National. And it’s a long five hours from first tee to Butler Cabin.
There’s No. 12, the shrimp-sized Titanic waiting to sink your tournament. There’s a nothing more infuriating than when a serene, idyllic short par 3 turns into a gnarled little grinning garden gnome waving the flag at you, is there?
You can’t go backwards on the back nine. And that means playing aggressively. Yes, driest ball wins, so play smart, but this is not the US Open; it’s the Masters. Champions play golf for the title, not defensively. So therein lies the double edge of the sword.
It’s the night before destiny. Yes, Scheffler is the hot hand right now, winning three tournaments in seven weeks and catapulting to number one on the planet. Yes, he’s been dominant this week. Yes he looks, for all the world, like he’s a lock.
But we’ve been wrong before. Augusta does that.