It’s difficult to measure greatness in golf. How does one do so? Tournament victories? Major championships? Scoring average? The number of other golfers defeated over a specific period of time? It is not so simple in other sports either, but golf is exceedingly difficult. Great golfers are facing 155 other opponents simultaneously, and anything other than a 155-0 record against those golfers is often considered failure. What a completely insane sport.
Scottie Scheffler tied or defeated 117 of the 119 golfers he faced at the Charles Schwab Challenge last week. That’s 98% of them. In basketball or baseball or football, he would be revered, lauded and praised. On the PGA Tour, though? It’s kind of just another week in a long string of them for Scheffler. Success — or, perhaps more appropriately, perceived success — is a tricky thing in this game.
CBS Sports’ Amanda Renner asked Scheffler after his final round at Colonial, where he finished 7 under and T3 on the week, when he felt like his game was going to come back into form. Scheffler chuckled and called the question “a bit of a stretch,” which is true considering he’s won twice this year and is the No. 1 player in the world.
That exchange also underscores the very strange truth in golf, made famous by the inimitable Ricky Bobby when he philosophically waxed that “if you ain’t first, you’re last.”
The truth is that winning isn’t the only measure of success in golf. It is surely the most measurable and easiest to run to, but it’s also true that you can’t win unless you’re consistently in the mix. And nobody in the world has been in the mix more than Scottie Scheffler over the last several months.
Consider the last 15 tournaments Scheffler has played since opening the season with a T44 at the CJ Cup in October:
- Beat or tied 96% of opponents (1,588 of 1,655)
- Finished inside the top 12 in all 15 events
- Six podium finishes (first, second or third)
- Three or more strokes better from tee to green per event than second-best on the list, Patrick Cantlay
- Nine top-five finishes — two more than Jon Rahm, who is second
- Gaining 12 strokes on the field per tournament; Rory McIlroy, sixth-best over the same time, is gaining just eight
We could go on and on.
Incredibly, perhaps improbably, he’s only converted two of those 15 starts into victories. Why? He hasn’t putted particularly well. Among the top eight strokes-gained players in his last 15 events, Scheffler has been the worst putter, yet he still ranks ahead of everyone (including Rahm) in total strokes gained. If he had putted at all, it’s not unreasonable to think he could have won the following tournaments in addition to the Phoenix Open and Players Championship: The Charles Schwab Challenge, the AT&T Byron Nelson, the Masters and the Arnold Palmer Invitational
Scheffler could easily have six wins so far this year. That’s how good he’s been, even if we’re not able to measure it with anything other than statistics.
His summary at Colonial on Sunday, where he gained more strokes from tee to green on the week than the two golfers who made the playoff (Adam Schenk and Emiliano Grillo) gained in total for the week, was apropos.
“Played solid golf again today,” said Scheffler. “Hit it really nice.”
This is more or less an evergreen statement for the last 15 months.
“Seems like the story the last couple days, putts just weren’t falling,” he continued. “I made a few today, but overall I probably lost a few strokes on the greens, which is frustrating. For a weekend where I really struggled with the putter, to give myself still a chance to win was nice.”
You can substitute the word “months” for the word “days” in the first sentence and the entire thing still works.
There are two takeaways from all of this. The first is that wins are something but not everything. Adrian Meronk, Tony Finau and Talor Gooch all have the same number of professional golf victories (two) as Scheffler since October 24 when he started this bananas run. Only family members would say that any of those three are playing better golf than Scheffler.
The second takeaway is that Scheffler could be on the verge of an absolute tear. CBS Sports analyst Trevor Immelman brought this up on the broadcast on Sunday. It would be extremely unsurprising to those who have been paying attention to all of this if Scheffler ripped off victories at the Memorial, U.S. Open and Travelers Championship consecutively.
Even if he doesn’t, we should appreciate that Scheffler is on this ball-striking melee. It doesn’t always look beautiful and it hasn’t amounted to as much as it could have, but you don’t have to be first to not be last in golf. You can still be — and often are — great even without all the trophies you feasibly could have won.
Scheffler has established himself as one of the best in recent memory, somewhat quietly and often without beauty. If you look close enough, however, all of it is there.