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Perspective | Scottie Scheffler can empty his mind. At the Masters, that’s essential.

Perspective | Scottie Scheffler can empty his mind. At the Masters, that’s essential.

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The way Scottie Scheffler had played golf this week — shoot, the way he has played it for the better part of three years — the entire enterprise seems characterized by ease. Yes, when he powerfully swipes with his driver, he nearly swings out of his shoes. But the result is so often exactly what he intends: a long, loud cut that bisects the fairway, a bomb that merely sets up irons that are the most precise the game knows at the moment.

But even as his run to a second green jacket seemed inevitable Saturday afternoon — does the best player in the world really need to chip in for birdie at the first and make another birdie from between two trees at the third to prove his standing? — came the following reminder: This is golf. Golf is almost never automatic. Just ask the players who have completely solved its Rubik’s Cube one week only to find it completely indecipherable the next.

Wait, did we say one week to the next? How about one hole to the next?

The Masters will conclude Sunday, and Scheffler may well win it. But a mess of a Saturday in which more of the leader board moved backward than forward put the world No. 1 on notice: Major championships aren’t layups, regardless how easy you can make the game seem on occasion.

“Things can happen pretty fast out there,” Scheffler said.

Slow the mind, Scottie. Scheffler heads into the final round with the lead despite a zigzagging third-round 71 that featured a double bogey offset by an eagle and three bogeys canceled by four birdies, including a clutch 3 at the par-4 18th that reestablished his advantage. All that left him a shot better than two-time major champ Collin Morikawa and another shot ahead of steely Max Homa.

Those are worthy contenders, and the final round is always a better bet to be a treat than a dud. But even as that contingent sorts out who slips on a green blazer in the fading light, consider who is not contending and what that says about the difficulties not just of producing great golf but sustaining it.

Among those to miss the cut: Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Viktor Hovland, Dustin Johnson and Brian Harman, some in spectacular fashion. Thomas, a two-time major champion and former world No. 1, was cruising along at even par in the tournament through 14 holes Friday when he finished double, double, bogey, double to miss the cut by a shot.

Harman, the reigning British Open champ, shot a back-nine 47 in the first round and went home. Johnson, who won this tournament in 2020, produced one birdie, 10 bogeys and two doubles in 36 holes. Spieth made a 9, a score 20-handicappers can mostly avoid. Hovland made a triple and two doubles in an 81, a score he bettered by 16 shots in last year’s first round. This, from a player who closed last year’s FedEx Cup playoffs by shooting 11 straight rounds in the 60s.

The job of those players, individually, is to salvage and find their own games. That in turn would help buoy the sport as the PGA Tour and the renegade LIV Golf circuit try to piece golf back together. Tiger Woods, with an 82 on Saturday — his worst score in 99 career Masters rounds — isn’t capable of saving the sport, at least with his play, anymore.

So can the rest of these stars find their games at a time when golf needs as much wattage as it can get? They’re trying.

On the eve of a Masters in which he hoped to contend, Hovland beat balls at Augusta’s practice area as the sun set, hoping to magically hear a “click” that would fix all. Following a 77 on Friday that took him from the fringes of contention to dodging the cut line, Rory McIlroy worked on his own swing by the light of the caddie shack — sorry, this is Augusta, so call it the “building that houses the caddies” or whatever seems proper — well past darkness. Jon Rahm, the defending Masters champ, lamented after Saturday — as he remained 5 over for the tournament — that “being a little lost and not being under control of what was going on makes it so much harder.”

There could be a solution in the dirt, sure. But it so frequently seems like it’s more likely found on a psychiatrist’s couch. Anyone who had money on Hovland, for instance, then listened to him assess his game in the days leading up to the first round would have been tempted to call their bookie and ask, “Can I have that bet back?”

“The problem’s been when — and I kind of have been dealing with this recently — it’s like you’re trying to work on something, but it doesn’t necessarily feel exactly right,” Hovland said. “And then that’s when you kind of have to go back to the drawing board to keep figuring out until things start to click. … Your confidence level is going to be a little bit different than when you don’t have any conscious thoughts.”

Think about that concept. To produce your best golf, your brain must be empty. It would seem an easy task. But when confidence wanes, the thoughts jangle around like coins in a coffee can. The noise from within becomes both deafening and debilitating.

Which is why, from his opening 66, Scheffler seemed like such easy money. For all his otherworldly ball-striking, he also has drained his mind of clutter, taking care to remove all the dust from the corners.

“When you step up there on the first tee, I’m not thinking about last week and I’m not thinking about the week before that,” Scheffler said. “I’m thinking about the shot I’m trying to hit, and that’s pretty much it.”

It’s a beautiful place for a golfer’s psyche. It can, at times, seem unattainable.

“That’s obviously the end goal when you play this game is that you show up and you go through your routine and there’s almost, like, a blackout,” Hovland said. “You just react to what you’re doing and you see the shots, and the ball flight translates into what you’re seeing. That’s the goal.”

Good luck getting there. Even for the best. Scheffler’s ride Saturday included those two early birdies that made the Masters, briefly, seem like a foregone conclusion. His lead was two, and he was catching all the breaks.

But he bogeyed the difficult par-3 fourth. When he made the turn, he not only airmailed the 10th green but missed a three-footer for bogey. That double was followed by an inability to get the ball up and down from in front of the green at 11. In what seemed like a blink, he went from leading the field to trailing by two shots with five players in front of him.

After it all, he leads anyway — propelled by a bomb of an eagle putt at 13 and a fist pump to match.

“I try to feed off the positive energy of seeing the ball go in,” Scheffler said.

Positive energy: Bottle it up, and sell it at the merchandise tent. If he’s to win on Sunday, Scheffler not only will have to produce the masterful swings that have defined his recent past, but he will have to beat back the gremlins that have climbed into the craniums of so many of his competitors. He has done it for so long. Golf allows no one to do it forever.

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