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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Bryan Armen Graham at Pinehurst

The hardest task at the US Open: figuring out how to beat Scottie Scheffler

Scottie Scheffler has won five of his last eight starts
Scottie Scheffler has won five of his last eight starts. Photograph: Katie Goodale/USA Today Sports

How do you solve a problem like Scottie Scheffler, the world’s top-ranked golfer who enters the 124th playing of the US Open on a head of steam not seen on the men’s tour for many years? To ask Rory McIlroy, the Louisville Metro Police Department were on the right track.

“The only thing that took him from winning a golf tournament was going into a jail cell for an hour,” the Northern Irishman said with a smile on Tuesday at the Pinehurst Resort in the sand hills of North Carolina, where the year’s third major gets under way in two days. “It seems like every time he shows up, he is the guy to beat, and deservedly so.”

With the charges stemming from a headline-grabbing arrest during last month’s US PGA Championship having since been dropped, the mild-mannered Scheffler enters the US Open as the largest betting favorite entering a major in 15 years. The Masters champion will tee off alongside McIlroy and Xander Schauffele for the opening two rounds of the US Open in a marquee group featuring the world’s top three players.

There are veins of form and there are all-time heaters like the one Scheffler has been on. The 27-year-old won for the fifth time in eight starts on Sunday at the Memorial, becoming the first player with five victories in a season before the US Open since Tom Watson in 1980. The winner’s purse of $4m lifted him over $24m for the year, eclipsing the PGA Tour’s single-season earnings record – and it’s only the first week of June. It’s been nearly six months since he finished outside the top 10 at a tournament, a span of 11 event.

It’s a dumbfounding level of consistency that’s left Scheffler’s rivals, among them 2021 US Open champion Jon Rahm, wondering how they will catch up.

“It’s quite incredible to see what he’s been able to accomplish,” said Rahm, hours before withdrawing from the tournament due to an infected sore on his left foot. “Every so many years, there’s been great ball strikers that come up. But when you start getting compared to Tiger and things that Tiger has done, that’s when you know you are in a level that is quite special.

“Winning the tournaments he’s winning: to win Bay Hill, Players, Masters, RBC and then Memorial, you’re basically replicating a Tiger Woods season. It’s fantastic to see. He’s been playing fantastic golf and doing what he needs to do.”

Bryson DeChambeau, whose sole major win came in the US Open four years ago at Winged Foot, said on Tuesday he cornered Scheffler when he arrived on site to pose the million-dollar question: what’s the secret?

“He’s got full control of his golf swing,” DeChambeau said. “He’s figured out a lot of his putting. He plays some incredibly strategic golf from what I can tell. He doesn’t go too crazy. He just hits the right shots at the right time. He’s really in control of the environment, not only his environment but the conditions on the golf course. He knows what the golf ball is going to do. He knows how to react accordingly. When things go right, he’s able to right the ship pretty quickly. That’s just a recipe for success, and he’s been able to do it longer than anyone has for a long time.

“He is the gold standard right now, and we’re all looking up to him.”

Scheffler’s composure was put to an entirely different test at last month’s US PGA Championship when he was arrested outside the gates of Valhalla Golf Club and charged with a felony for assaulting a police officer with his vehicle, along with three misdemeanors. Even that proved nearly futile: he was released from jail in time to make his tee time, carded a five-under 66 and still managed to tie for eighth by Sunday night. (All of the charges were dropped in what both sides characterized as a “big misunderstanding”.)

A secondary release of bodycam footage on Friday previously withheld by Louisville police showed Scheffler calmly speaking with the arresting officer while handcuffed in the back seat of a police cruiser. Only upon arrival at the jailhouse more than an hour after Scheffler’s detainment did the officer realize he’d spent the morning with the world’s best player.

“You’re too casual to be the No 1 player in the world,” the officer said. “You should have had a driver.”

It’s a sangfroid that McIlroy believes is at the foundation of Scheffler’s success.

“The most exciting thing about last week at Memorial was when he made the triple on nine,” McIlroy said. “Everyone was like, oh, looks like he might let people in here, but he finds a way to steady the ship, make a few birdies when he needs to. Undoubtedly the best player in the world at the minute by a long way. It’s up to us to try to get to his level.”

Scheffler, for his part, insisted that he has blocked out the past and remained hyper-focused on the present.

“When I play with Xander and Rory here Thursday and Friday, they’re not going to be saying weird stuff to me out on the golf course or trying to block my putt from going in the hole,” he said. “We all kind of got to go out there and play our game. As far as a target on my back, even if there was, there’s really not much we can do in the game of golf. Most of it is against the golf course and playing against yourself.”

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