Crunching the Numbers
British Open 2023: Scottie Scheffler might say otherwise, but his putter is still letting him down
HOYLAKE, England — The Open Championship website has a convenient graphic showing a player's strokes gained in every aspect of his game at Royal Liverpool this week, and the chart for World No. 1 Scottie Scheffler, who made the cut on the number thanks to an impressive if somewhat fortunate birdie on the 18th hole on Friday is eye-opening, if not surprising:
As you see from the dramatic difference, the story from the rest of his season is persisting here at the Open—he's excellent in two of the three most important parts of the game, off the tee and on the approach, and absolutely dire in the third, putting, where he sits third-to-last in the 156-man field. (You can safely ignore around the green, as the sample size is incredibly small and variable within a single tournament.)
This jives with … well, just about everything. On the PGA Tour this year, Scheffler is first in strokes gained/off the tee, tee to green and approach—let's pause a moment to recognize how insane that is—but 139th in putting. That puts him ensconced between Cody Gribble and Vincent Norrman. His PGA Tour numbers in particular signal a significant decline; from 2021-22, when he was 58th strokes gained/putting.
That paints a pretty definitive broad picture, but on the granular level, that pattern has been just as apparent in the other majors as it has here in Hoylake, albeit slightly less exaggerated as he turned in more respectable putting performances at the last two majors.
At the Masters in April, only 16 players putted worse than Scheffler by true strokes gained, per DataGolf, while he was first in approach and eighth off the tee. At the PGA Championship in May, he was third off the tee, eighth in approach and 34th in putting. And in the U.S. Open last month, he was seventh in approach, sixth off the tee and 33rd in putting.
The incredible thing about Scheffler is that he's such a proficient ball-striker that he's never far from the lead. In 2023, he has yet to finish outside the top 15 in 16 events, and he's currently on a run of seven straight top-five finishes. In terms of being one of the absolute best players in the world, it's almost like he doesn't need to putt. This year's Memorial was a prime example; he finished fifth-to-last in the entire field in true strokes gained/putting, but finished the tournament itself in third place. (Only now, at the Open, has the putting been so rough that it sends him plummeting to his current position of T-65.)
In the inflated world of purses, Scheffler is still banking plenty of prize money; he has earned $19.01 million this season, a PGA Tour record, or more than $1 million per start. What it does cost him is wins. It's impossible not to see these slew of top-five performances and not imagine how many titles he would have if he was simply a little above average on the greens. It may be that his superb ball -triking is a skill that can carry on for a decade or more, but it may also be that he cools off at some point. If the time comes when he loses even a little of his outrageous skill, you can imagine how he'll regret not capturing at least one more major in the two-year period when he was, by far, the game's best ball-striker. In a strange way, his skill off the green almost makes the putting problem more urgent; it would be one thing if he were falling from a 15th place finish to T-45, but it's quite another when actual wins are slipping into top five showings.
Scheffler spoke about his putting before the Open, and to put it mildly, he doesn't like the current narrative, and doesn't seem to believe it's true.
"I think that most of what has to happen is something has to be created into a story," he said, "and for a while it didn't really seem like there was much of a story behind the way I play golf. I think I was viewed as probably a touch boring and didn't really show much emotion and whatever else you could think of.
"But I think I had back-to-back tournaments that I could have won where I putted poorly, and all of a sudden it became this thing where like I'll watch highlights of my round, and even the announcers, any time you step over the putt it's like, well, this is the part of the game he struggles with. And it's like, if you say it every time and you guys see me miss a 12-footer it's like, oh, there it is. He's struggling again."
The argument there, that the "Scheffler is a bad putter" talking point accrues momentum just by force of media repetition, is surely based on a real phenomenon that exists in other aspects of this and every sport. The statistics, however, more than back up that it hasn't been conjured from thin air by the press.
"It's one of those deals where I don't pay attention to it," Scheffler said. "The things that I'm working on right now I feel very excited about. I'm hitting a lot of good putts. Pretty soon, a lot of those good putts will start falling in the middle of the hole instead of dodging around the side of it. I have a lot of faith in what I'm working on right now, and I'm hoping to see some results soon."
If he finds those results, his current form everywhere but the green could combine with a reinvigorated putter to unleash a period of dominance that could even put his torrid 2022 season to shame. Until then, though, he'll remain a superlative player who is nonetheless missing some important opportunities.
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Is it the British Open or the Open Championship? The name of the final men’s major of the golf season is a subject of continued discussion. The event’s official name, as explained in this op-ed by former R&A chairman Ian Pattinson, is the Open Championship. But since many United States golf fans continue to refer to it as the British Open, and search news around the event accordingly, Golf Digest continues to utilize both names in its coverage.
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