Twelve months ago Scottie Scheffler arrived at the WM Phoenix Open with a growing reputation. He’d racked up 17 top 10s on the PGA Tour, four of them in major championships and another a runner-up finish in the World Golf Championship’s Match Play event. There was also an asterisk next to his name, however, because for all that success there was no first tier trophy in his cabinet.
He was third at this stage of the tournament last year, the sixth time he’d been in that position on the PGA Tour and on each of those occasions he had not ended the tournament outside the top 10, but he had finished lower down the pecking order than he’d started it (including at the previous year’s edition of the event).
A sensational third round 62 had vaulted him 41 spots up the leaderboard and into contention whereupon he started a run that scrubbed away that pesky asterisk in sensational style, carding a 67 to force a play-off with Patrick Cantlay which he won before adding three more titles in his next five starts (a run that memorably ended with triumph at the Masters).
At the start of this week he talked about the experience of returning to the scene of his breakthrough. “Really cool coming back,” he said. “I played the back nine on Monday and I can remember pretty much every shot that I hit last year which is unusual for me. I usually forget pretty much everything. So it was definitely a little bit weird being like, ‘Oh, yeah, I remember this, I remember that.’”
The visceral nature of those recollections, and his awareness that they were out of character, might have reinforced good lessons learned last year. He added, for example, how proud he was of grinding out pars and in this year’s third round he was doing just that for quite a while before closing with a couple of late birdies which leaves him two clear of the field on 13-under 200 as he seeks to complete a successful defence of the title.
All that being said, the business of being a finisher is never straightforward. From being a man who never quite got it done, he became a man who always did, and then he sort of forgot again. He hasn’t won since the Masters and has twice had his fingers burned. He led the Charles Schwab Challenge by two at this stage but shot a 2-over-par 72, was caught by Sam Burns and lost in extra holes, then he also led the Tour Championship with 18 holes to play, carded a 3-over 73 and was passed by Rory McIlroy.
He’ll be hoping those Scottsdale memories usurp his most recent experience of leading on Sunday morning. He’s also keeping it simple, saying last night: “I feel like my odds are a little bit better if I’ve got a two-shot lead rather than a two-shot deficit. So I definitely prefer to be in the lead.” The books generally make him a touch over evens with 23/20 the best price.
His nearest challengers are the Canadian Nick Taylor and Spain’s Jon Rahm. The latter joined in the debate about leading the field with equally straightforward logic. “You always want the lead,” he said. “You have a cushion, right? It’s better. If I shoot 5-under tomorrow, Scottie shoots 4, he wins. Simple as that. It’s very simple math. I get it.” He also added a crucial detail, however: “It might be a little mentally more demanding being in the lead.”
Rahm also explained that, as an Arizona State University alumni, winning this tournament would mean a great deal to him. The golf course is a happy place for him right now with four wins in his last six official starts. He’s got a great chance of finally improving on his best here of fifth which came on his debut as an amateur in 2015. Skybet did go a tempting 4/1 but he is now a general 3/1.
Taylor has found something this week because in eight previous starts he had a best of 49th. The secret? He now lives in Scottsdale. He’s been putting better anyway since going to the claw grip plus he’s been visiting the course and getting to grips with greens he’s previously struggled with. He’s generally available at 18/1 and up against high quality opposition that’s realistic.
In a share of fourth are Adam Hadwin (top 10 through 54 holes last year before a final round 72, a best of 12th in eight visits, priced 25/1) and Jordan Spieth who has my attention at a widely available 14/1.
On arrival at Scottsdale on Monday he started working with his coach and said afterwards: “I got in a really good frame of mind for what I was going to work on this week. It’s not super surprising that I pieced that second round (of 63) together. The ball striking has been there.”
The stats back him up. He ranks second for Strokes Gained Approach (behind only Scheffler) and in that second round he hit all 18 greens in regulation (something he last achieved in 2013). Can he get the putts to drop? “That’s the hope. I’ve had it happen before. It feels good. Once they start to fall, hopefully that hole starts to look big. I’m looking to get a couple early tomorrow.”
That 63 was not the first time he has gone low on the course. He posted a final round 65 on debut in 2015 and a third round 61 two years ago to grab a share of the 54 hole lead. He didn’t convert that week but it was the first step on his road back to the winner’s circle and he stressed at the time how he was re-learning lessons. Being back in the hunt might rekindle memories of them and he was chipper after making a late birdie at 17 last night. He’s the each-way pick at the widely quoted 14/1.
Published at 1010 GMT on 12/02/23
More golf content
We are committed in our support of safer gambling. Recommended bets are advised to over-18s and we strongly encourage readers to wager only what they can afford to lose.
If you are concerned about your gambling, please call the National Gambling Helpline / GamCare on 0808 8020 133.
Further support and information can be found at begambleaware.org and gamblingtherapy.org.