How Scottie Scheffler won THE PLAYERS in 2023


Scottie Scheffler knew it wouldn’t be easy to win THE PLAYERS. Before joining the PGA Tour, before college golf at the University of Texas, before high school golf and his mountain of victories there, and even before playing in the Junior Players Championship, he had played TPC Sawgrass. His first round was with his dad, and he remembers his tee shot on the island 17th.

“It was just us two, and just going out there and having fun,” he recalled. “I think I hit a pretty good shot.”

Visions of things to come?

“Anytime when you see stuff on TV, it always looks so much larger than life, whether it’s a person or a hole or a golf course, and then you get out there, and you’re like: Okay, wait, like it’s a normal-sized green, and I can do this,” he said about the experience.

Yes, he could do it. Last year, in just his fourth season on the PGA Tour, he won THE PLAYERS. It’s a huge tournament. It’s the PGA Tour’s major. It’s never an easy one to win, but by the end of the week, he made it look that way.

Scheffler came to Ponte Vedra after a ridiculously tough tournament, the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, where he finished tied for 4th. The Bay Hill course is difficult in the best of conditions, and last year, there was a lot of wind — gusts 25 to 35 mph — on two days of the tournament.

“I would say that, if we were to do that every week, I would probably get a little bit worn out,” he admitted before THE PLAYERS began.

Of course, The Arnold Palmer was just a warm-up for the brutality of the ridiculously difficult TPC Sawgrass.

“If we were playing a video game, I don’t think it would be very challenging,” he said about TPC Sawgrass. “But it’s golf and there’ s elements …”

Sure, elements like massive amounts of water, ever-present trees, yawning bunkers, nasty slopes and always the magic of Pete Dye’s wicked imagination trying his hardest – as he used to say – “to give today’s golfers the same kind of tough test Mr. Hogan faced when he played that famous 1-iron at Merion.”

As Scheffler put it, “It’s challenging, and you don’t always hit it where you are looking, so anytime on this golf course — basically on any hole, anytime you get out of position here, it’s a very challenging hole.”

That’s the thing about TPC Sawgrass. It’s just so easy to be in the wrong spot when you didn’t intend to. And there are sooooo many wrong spots. And a lot of them have water. Or sand. Some of them even have teeth, like the alligator who paddles around in the lake surrounding the 17th island green.

“If you’re hitting every shot exactly how you want to, which is pretty much impossible in a round of golf, it’s pretty easy,” Scheffler added. Nobody ever hits every shot the way they want to, even PGA Tour pros.

The other thing about TPS Sawgrass is that the golf course just plain loathes everybody. You, me, Scheffler, Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Fred Couples, Davis Love III, Nick Price, even Tiger Woods and all the fine professionals who have dared to win on it. The course shows equal opportunity hatred. You could swear it snarls and growls during play.

But regardless of the tough week at Bay Hill, the unpredictability and nastiness of TPC Sawgrass, the fickleness of the bunkers and the treachery of the water, Scheffler seemed ready to go.

Thursday, he began his assault on the course and the field. While he may have wanted to lead from the start, other things happened.

Chad Ramey, a Mississippi State golfer who won the Corales Puntacana Championship in 2022, was atop the scores after round one at 8-under par. Collin Morikawa, past PGA and British Open champ, was next at 7-under. Taylor Pendrith and Ben Griffin were tied, three shots back of the lead. And Scheffler was one of eight tied at 4-under par, four shots behind. Still, it was a decent start.

During round two it had been off and on windy all day with gusts to the low 20s. Then, weather brought the second round to a halt right around 4:30. There were 71 players still on the course, and they had to come back the next morning to start play again around 7 a.m.

By mid-morning on Saturday, the second round was finished, and Scheffler had clawed up the leaderboard a bit, improving his position. After round two, he was in second alone, two shots back of Adam Svensson, who won the 2022 RSM Classic.

Saturday is usually called moving day, because it’s the third round and the last chance to really leap up and threaten the leader before Sunday’s final battle. And Scheffler took advantage, posting a 65 that put him in the top spot, right where he wanted to be. Or at least where we think he wanted to be. Where all golfers really want to be is in the lead after 18 holes on Sunday, not Saturday.

Scheffler admitted that he was very nervous before beginning the Sunday round. When he had the lead going into the final round at the Masters that he won, he was an emotional mess. It’s not completely uncommon, but we usually don’t know about it.

Golfers don’t tell us everything, after all.

“This tournament feels like a major championship to me, and this morning was tough,” he said, but he didn’t elaborate. Nobody pressed him on it.

When the final round began, Scheffler was at 14-under par and two ahead of Min Woo Lee of Australia who won the 2023 Fortinet. Lee, a member of four tours, was a formidable challenger with victories all around the world. Cam Davis, also of Australia, was four back of Scheffler.

Christiaan Bezuidenhout — don’t you always want to say Bless You! when you see his name — Aaron Rai, Chad Ramey and Tommy Fleetwood were next, all tied at 9-under, five shots back.

Things happened right away. Min Woo Lee birdied the first hole. Scheffler parred it, having rescued himself from the left pine straw and trees.

Neither player distinguished himself on the 2nd hole, but they both salvaged par. Then they came to the 3rd. Scheffler hit over the green, not far, no more than a few inches, but an inch might as well be a mile sometimes in golf. He chipped up toward the hole, then missed his par putt. A stroke of his lead was sacrificed there. Lee made par.

Then at the 4th, it was Lee’s turn to confront TPC Sawgrass. His drive was adequate except that it was in the rough. He hit out, just trying to get into the fairway so he’d have a good look at the green from the fairway. From there, Lee hit a terrible tee shot. It landed in the water in front of the 4th green. So, a penalty was coming. That hole looks so easy, but one false move and it jumps up and bites people. It’s always waiting with its menacing, evil smile, and sharp teeth.

So, after hitting over the water to the green again, and making a couple of putts to finally get the ball in the hole, Lee had a triple bogey. That’s how fast bad things happen at TPC Sawgrass. As Scheffler said, there are elements!

The two steadied their ships and marched on to the rest of the front nine. Lee birdied the 7th, but he bogeyed the 8th.

Scheffler had a great miracle hole out on the 8th for birdie and followed that up with birdie on the 9th . The round had turned in his favor. Mojo seemed on his side. Never mess with Mojo when it shows up. Put your arm around it and give it a hug!

Scheffler just kept the pedal on the floor and got three more birdies in a row at 10, 11 and 12. That was five in all, and it put him at 18-under par.

Lee, on the other hand, had a double at the 11th and a garden variety bogey at the 14th. A bogey at the 14th is almost like a par. It’s a tough hole. It’s set up awkwardly by Pete You-Know-Who. It’s just a challenge to get the golf ball in the right spot. After that mistake, Lee was out of the tournament, practically speaking.

Scheffler also had issues with the 14th. He was in such deep rough on the right that he was just trying to get out. He nearly ran the ball across to the left rough. So, three shots to get to the green instead of two and there you go, bogey at 14th. He fell back to 17-under.

Then other guys started making a run at Scheffler.

Tyrrell Hatton had seven birdies on the back nine, but he was far enough back that it only got him to 12- under par, five back of Scheffler.

Viktor Hovland had a run of four birdies in five holes at the 9th, 11th, 12th and 13th, but he couldn’t get more under par. He finished at 10-under.

Hideki Matsuyama appeared on the leaderboard after making seven birdies through the 13th hole, but his charge ended with a double at the 14th, and he had an added insult from a garden variety bogey on the 18th .

Max Homa looked like he might do something when he birdied the 10th, eagled the 11th and birdied the 12th, but even a par instead of the double he had at the 17th would not have put him close to Scheffler’s 17-under.

They all fired at him, but Scheffler was just too far ahead for it to make much difference.

“It was so challenging that I wanted to get as big of a lead as I could because you could hit a really good shot on 17 this afternoon and go in the water,” Scheffler said about the final round. “I didn’t want to focus on a four-shot lead. I wanted to focus on beating the course.”

In the end, Scheffler did what he needed to do. Made fewer mistakes than the rest of the field on a course known for catastrophes. He parred when they bogeyed. He waited for what he felt would be his run of birdies in the round, took them and held on.

In the end, Scheffler played steady, conservative golf. Other than the hole-out at the 8th, it wasn’t flashy. But it wasn’t mistake-prone, and that was the key. It’s always the key around TPC Sawgrass, which is, no doubt, one of the nastiest courses on Earth.

“I get excited for a good hard test,” Scheffler said after winning. “I feel like that I can find a way to make pars and hang in there. And I mean, this week I think I had five bogeys for the whole week. Around this place, that’s really, really, I would say, hard to do, and that’s probably what I’m most proud of — is just playing so solid.”

Scheffler returns to TPC Sawgrass with his No. 1 ranking intact. He held it first in March of 2022 and after trading back and forth with a couple of players no longer on the PGA Tour, he remains the dominant player in golf. Could he be the first player to repeat as champ? Or will we see Rory McIlroy, Viktor Hovland, Xander Schauffele, Justin Thomas, Patrick Cantlay, Wyndham Clark or some other player step up to challenge his position? One way or another, it’s going to be a great week of golf.