It must be the best part of a hundred yards from the boundary ropes to the left side of the 14th fairway, far enough to leave one of the families standing there squinting into the middle distance as they tried to figure out who it was striding through the long grass over on the far side. White cap, grey sweater, tan slacks. “Who is that man over there?” asked the grandad. “Not sure,” his son replied. “Looks like it could be Scottie Scheffler,” said the grandson, who added by way of explanation: “He’s the best player in the world at the minute.”
So he is. Scheffler has been top of the rankings for three months now, since he won the WGC Match Play and the Masters in the spring. The way he’s shaping up this week, he could yet end up winning The Open too.
He made a 68 on Thursday, and then 68 again on Friday, which puts him eight under for the championship. The list of golfers who have won majors at Augusta and St Andrews in the same year isn’t long. It starts with Nick Faldo and then it ends with Tiger Woods. It would be one of the great achievements.
And if Scheffler pulls it off maybe some of the fans around the links at Royal Liverpool this time next year won’t need to look twice before they figure out it’s him they’re watching. Scheffler was asked about his low profile at the start of the week. “I guess I am No 1 in the rankings,” he said. “I’m not sure if I’m necessarily perceived that way by you all or whoever.” Or the St Andrews crowd. There were a lot more people cheering for his playing partner Tyrrell Hatton. But then Hatton is British, of course, a favourite here because of his victories in the Dunhill Links Championship, and was in the middle of a brilliant round of 66 himself.
Some of the coolness towards Scheffler is just unfamiliarity. At the start of June last year he wasn’t even ranked in the Top 20. He’s shot to the top so fast that you might have missed it unless you’ve been paying close attention. That will change. Judging by the way his gallery swelled behind him as he came down the stretch at seven under, one shot off the clubhouse lead, it already is. But the rest of it is just that he doesn’t give you much to work with. Scheffler’s really not fussed about fame. As he told the press himself: “That’s not stuff that I really ever think about. For me I’m just trying to go out and play good golf.”
Scheffler sometimes seems a bit bewildered by what’s happened to him in the past few months. He’s spoken about a moment on the Sunday morning of the Masters when, sitting on a three-shot overnight lead, he broke down in tears because he wasn’t sure whether he was equal to what he was about to achieve. His way of dealing with the streak he’s on is just to act like nothing’s really changed, like a man who’s refusing look around him because he’s worried he’ll fall if he realises just how high up he’s climbed in the meantime.
He still drives the same GMC Yukon, still eats at the same burger joint, still wears the same white socks. He isn’t a man given to experimenting. In one of the few big media appearances he did do, for Golf Magazine, he refused to put on a blue shirt for the photoshoot because the previous time he wore the colour his friends made fun of him. Which tells you something about the way he plays the game, too. This week, he said, he’s been trying to play “conservative golf”.
Scheffler dropped one shot with a three-putt at the first, then covered the next stretch of five holes in even par before he pulled it back with a birdie at the 7th. Which was more impressive than it sounds on paper because he was out in the worst conditions of the day, playing in steady rain and a stiff breeze. “I stayed out of trouble and made some good pars,” he said. It was around this point that the TV crews started to drop off him, their director reckoning that there were better stories and bigger draws elsewhere on the course.
Then on the 10th everything clicked. Scheffler made his second birdie after he hit his approach to 15ft, his third at the par-three 11th where he hit his tee shot to a similar distance, and his fourth at the 12th where he was able to drive to the front of the green. That meant he’d picked up three shots coming around the turn.
At the same time Hatton was on a tear too, with four birdies in five holes. They made an odd couple: one short, one tall, one fiery, one cool. Hatton even tossed his ball into the water at the 1st after he missed his birdie putt because, he explained later, “it was scared of the dark”.
And could have pulled further away down the stretch, but he missed three birdie putts from inside 15ft. There’s plenty more to come from him yet on the course, if not off it.