2020 Players: Scottie Scheffler is easy-going rookie with strong competitive drive

March 12, 2020
Scottie Scheffler Players Championship

Cliff Hawkins

PONTE VEDRA BEACH -- Scott McGuinness, the caddie to 23-year-old Scottie Scheffler, did one of the worst things you can do to a reporter after Scheffler's first-round, four-under-par 68 at the Players Championship. We were discussing Scheffler's personality, and a small grin crept onto McGuinness's face.

"One thing we do is laugh all the time, and ... uhh ... "

Here he stopped, and the grin widened into a smile.

"Come on," I said. "You want to tell it."

"Ehhh ... "

"Come on, come on, come on," I chanted, faster now, hoping to bully him into speaking. But McGuinness only laughed—whatever story was in his mind, it was staying there.

"I've learnt over the years to keep it to myself," he said, sorry but decisive.

This kind of tease is somehow worse than a normal bland interview, and, in fact, Scheffler had done it to me a day earlier, in Wednesday's scrum of Players Championship rookies. Surrounded by media, looking lanky even in a chair, he alluded to the time he spent on the road in lonely hotels, alone with his thoughts, and how it had helped him learn about himself.

"What did you learn?" I asked, which produced a small smile not unlike his caddie's.

"You learn what works for you, you spend time alone in thought, and you kinda learn about what you believe."

"And what do you believe?"

But again, he evaded with a laugh. Nevertheless, it had been a good conversation, and while they both stopped me right on the threshold of something interesting, it didn't surprise me to learn there was something interesting. Scheffler turned in the best round of the American rookies on Thursday in the morning wave, and while it was nice of him to oblige, I was following him in the first place because enough people, including my editor, told me how interesting he is.

On Wednesday, I found him to be an easy conversationalist—not always a given with players—and open about his history with the game. He and his family moved to Dallas from Bergen County, N.J., when Scheffler was just 5. His mother worked as a COO at a law firm while his father stayed at home to raise Scottie and his three sisters.

Although New Jersey didn't allow anyone younger than 12 on public courses, in Dallas the young transplant was free to work on his game and move past the plastic ball and clubs he'd contented himself with as a toddler. He began to play in nine-hole junior events, and his family joined Royal Oaks Country Club when he was around 8. There, he met his current coach, Randy Smith, the pro who at the time coached Justin Leonard. Scheffler grew up watching players like Colt Knost and Harrison Frazar come through Royal Oaks.

Scheffler never had a specific moment where he committed to golf, mostly because he always wanted to be a professional. At 6 feet 3, he played basketball throughout high school—he called himself a "utility guy" who was good at crashing the offensive glass, and made sure to insist (jokingly, I think) that he was better than Cameron Champ—but in his heart of hearts, golf was Plan A, and there was no backup.

On Thursday, he birdied five of his first nine holes (the back nine of the Players, as it happens), and managed to exorcise some junior golf demons when he made par on the island 17th green after dumping two shots in the water at the Junior Players years ago. McGuinness told me that 68 was the worst he could have shot, because he got a little unlucky with some bunker lies on the last nine. But Scheffler wasn't having it.

"It's what I shot," he said, "so it's too late to go back."

He doesn't go for easy or pat answers and seems a little uncomfortable with rote conversation generally. It reminded me of a moment from Wednesday when a TV crew asked him to look into their camera and say, "I'm Scottie Scheffler, and I'm a PGA Tour player." He dutifully recited the line, but it felt awkward for him, and he laughed when I told him his tone sounded almost apologetic.

"Sorry," he said.

Later, when's James Colgan approached him to ask for advice on covering his first tournament in-person, Scheffler shot back, "You look nervous," and joked that the question made him feel too much pressure. But he finally settled on something that felt appropriate: "Just be yourself. I don't know what else to say."

That's advice Scheffler himself heeds naturally—his calm, easy manner doesn't seem to change for anything, even when he's joking around with the likes of McGuinness, or his best PGA Tour friend, Vince Whaley, or fellow rookies Matthew Wolff and Harry Hicks. Scheffler is so laid back at times that media attention almost seems to baffle him, but not in a way that's unsettling.

He's ready for the attention that success will bring, and for McGuinness, who has worked with the likes of Jason Gore, Matt Jones and John Daly, Scheffler's game was special enough that he left the PGA Tour to spend a year with him on the Korn Ferry Tour in 2019. The decision paid off—Scheffler won Player of the Year, easily qualified for the PGA Tour, and already has a few top-five finishes this season.

He and McGuinness may keep the best stories to themselves, but there's no hiding the on-course success.