Players Championship

Players Championship: Scottie Scheffler is playing hurt

March 15, 2024
2086313856

Sam Greenwood

PONTE VEDRA BEACH — His neck was hurting, which you could tell by his feet. The footwork is usually a masterclass of controlled imbalance, the left foot rolling as the right barrels in like a fullback, not so much concerned by where it’s going but what it’s allowing through. But Scottie Scheffler’s sui generis swing dance had turned into a full-on pirouette Friday at TPC Sawgrass, which would have been amusing if it wasn’t punctuated by so much pain.

Yet the past two years have underlined that Scheffler is not just a good player but a bad man, and bad men play hurt. The World No. 1 kept his hopes of a title defense alive by grinding out a 69 that he had no business shooting.

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“That's really all I could ask for,” Scheffler explained. “The way I was getting around the course, the way my neck was feeling, I didn't know if I was going to be able to continue playing, so yeah, good fight out there."

Scheffler is not one to emote, either when things are going well or they’re not. His poker face is always and forever, and as of late he’s been the one clearing the chips off the table. So when Scheffler called over a PGA Tour official as he walked off the 12th tee (he started his round on the 10th), motioned to his shoulders and asked for BioFreeze, it was clear something wasn’t right. He birdied the next hole only to hurry off the green to receive treatment from the tour’s physical therapist, who worked on Scheffler’s shoulders and neck as Scheffler unfurled his massive frame into a camping chair. Scheffler conceded the honor of hitting first to playing partners Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler, and by the time Scheffler was ready to tee off Thomas was already down the fairway. What followed was not so much a swing as a swirl, Scheffler’s right knee punched the air after contact with his weight falling back on his left heel. The ball found the fairway, proving that even as a ballerina Scheffler remains golf’s best ball-striker.

“Yeah, I hit a shot on my second hole today and I felt a little something in my neck, and then I tried to hit my tee shot on 12, and that's when I could barely get the club back,” Scheffler explained. “So I got some treatment, maybe it loosened up a tiny bit, but most of the day I was pretty much laboring to get the club somehow away from me.”

That was the cadence for the rest of the morning and afternoon. Scheffler battling equilibrium, doing his best to combat his physical constraints with abbreviated follow-throughs to fuse with those shuffles. In between holes, seeking care for his neck and trying to get as much relief as possible. It was an odd sight, and a few media members and fans took their phones out to snap Scheffler’s massages. Scheffler’s patience began to run thin with some of the gawkers, asking politely to, please, give him space. (Note to the tour’s new equity partners, might want to invest in those blue medical tents the NFL uses). Eventually Scheffler and his group threatened to fall behind pace because of Scheffler’s toils and were given a warning for slow play.

The thing is, Scheffler kept up, at least on the leaderboard. He made the turn in 34 and birdied the second and third, the latter off a chip-in just moments after he visibly winced in pain during his approach. Eventually his ball-striking suffered, and his final holes were an exercise of struggle. He grimaced on most shots, and his right hand was constantly draped over his left shoulder, trying to rub out the sting and ache that wouldn't leave. There was a bogey at the sixth, and he threatened to fall over with his drive at the ninth, but he got into the clubhouse without further damage for a two-day eight-under total.

“I did what I could to kind of stay in the tournament today,” Scheffler said, “and hopefully it'll loosen up and then I'll be able to make somewhat normal swings tomorrow.”

It’s a score that has him T-3 as the afternoon wave descends on Sawgrass, albeit six shots back of Wyndham Clark. However, the score was secondary on Friday. In a matter of 23 months Scheffler has gone from “When’s he going to break through?” to “Can he be stopped?” His game is consistent and measured and total, a game that produces rounds that can come off as plodding in the best possible connotation. His greatest sin is that performance, coupled with an unrelenting niceness, can be misconstrued as mundane, to the point that other players were asked earlier in the week about Scheffler being “boring.” When Scheffler’s at his best, which is often, he looks more machine than man.

He didn’t look like a machine on Friday. The poker face was gone. Fans saw big drives go short and arrows go awry and long strides hobbled. They saw Scheffler laboring like hell but still throwing everything he’s got and hoping it’s enough. The crowds see that, and they know what they see. A man, with the heart to prove it.