AUGUSTA: Scottie Scheffler held rock steady and cruised to a three-shot victory at the Masters on Sunday to earn the coveted ‘Green Jacket’ and cement his status as the world’s top ranked golfer.
From winning his first PGA Tour event at the Phoenix Open just two months ago to claiming his first major title at Augusta National, Schleffer’s rise has been nothing short of meteoric.
Starting the final round with a three-shot advantage over Australian Cameron Smith, the 25-year-old American carded a one-under 71 for a 10-under 278 total, three clear of Rory McIlroy and five ahead of Smith after Tiger Woods completed his comeback from severe leg injuries.
McIlroy’s eight-under 64 matched the final-round record at the Masters as the Northern Irishman made a stirring late charge in a bid to claim the elusive title that would see him complete the career Grand Slam.
Scheffler said he could afford to focus on his own game thanks to his three-shot cushion.
“I may have looked calm on the outside, but it’s a long day. It’s a tough day,” said Scheffler. “I was fortunate to put myself in a position where I was in control of the tournament today, so I didn’t have to worry about what anyone else was doing out there.
“If I took care of my stuff and played good solid golf, I felt like I would get the job done.”
The year’s first major was poised for a showdown between the planet’s two hottest golfers in Scheffler, the winner of three of his last five PGA Tour starts, and Smith, who claimed golf’s unofficial fifth major at the Players Championship in March.
And that is how the final round unfolded until the par three 12th in the heart of the notorious Amen Corner when Smith put his tee shot into Rae’s Creek on the way to a triple bogey six, sending him down the leaderboard.
“It’s just a really bad swing,” said Smith. “Probably one of the worst swings of the week and just at the worst time of the week. Just unfortunate, but I’ll grow from this and be stronger for it.”
A rattled Smith never recovered, slumping to a one-over 73 to finish five back in a tie for third with Irishman Shane Lowry, who closed with 69.
Smith got his day off to a scintillating start with back-to-back birdies.
But Scheffler hit back with a spectacular chip-in birdie at the third, which Smith would bogey, restoring the world number one’s three-shot cushion.
Smith slumped to a second bogey on the par three fourth and suddenly Scheffler had stretched his lead to four.
As the pair started the back nine, a mighty roar rolled across Augusta National after McIlroy carded an eagle at the 13th to get to six-under for the tournament.
That left McIlroy five back of Scheffler and one behind Smith, raising pressure on the pair as they entered Amen Corner — holes 11, 12 and 13, perhaps the most famous stretch of golf real estate where so many Masters have been won and lost.
“I’ve had the lead on the back nine here and haven’t been able to get it done,” said McIlroy. “I just wanted to try and put a little bit of pressure on and I feel like I did that.”
A long birdie putt at 11 by Smith triggered an explosion of cheers that would have been heard back home in Brisbane.
But then came the 12th, where so many Green Jacket dreams have turned into nightmares, Smith’s now among them after his tee shot found the water.
“It was definitely nice to build up a lead,” said Scheffler. “Nothing is safe out there on the back nine on this golf course.
“I’ve heard all the things that everybody says, it doesn’t start till the back nine on Sunday, anything can happen, don’t hit in the water on 12, all the stuff. I just blocked most of that out and tried to execute and hit good golf shots.”
The only moment Scheffler showed any hint of nerves came at the very end, standing on the 18th green and missing two short putts that would have given him a bigger margin of victory.
“I didn’t want any stress towards the end of the day,” said Scheffler. “I didn’t break my concentration until we got on to the green on 18.”
The American took a $2.7 million top prize from a $15 million purse and joined 1991 Masters champion Ian Woosnam as the only players to win majors in their debut events as world number one.
Scheffler is only the fifth player to win the Masters while atop the rankings, joining Welshman Woosnam and Americans Fred Couples, Dustin Johnson and Woods, whose epic injury fightback dominated attention all week.
Spectators gave Woods a standing ovation at the 18th green for his astonishing return to golf 14 months after a car crash that left him hospitalized for weeks and unable to walk for months.
“I wasn’t playing my best but to have their support out there, I don’t think words can describe it,” Woods said.
The 15-time major winner fired weekend 78s, his worst Masters rounds, to finish with his highest Augusta National 72-hole score of 301 and in a worst-ever 47th place.
But the fact Woods was able to walk the course and play at all was nothing short of incredible given the 46-year-old medical marvel had not played a top event for 17 months and feared amputation of a right leg now held together with rods, plates, pins and screws.
“Given where I was a little over a year ago and what my prospects were, to end up here and be able to play in all four rounds, even a month ago, I didn’t know if I could pull this off,” Woods said.
Woods arrived at Augusta chasing a record-tying sixth Masters crown and departed knowing he had the fortitude to play majors again.
“It has been a tough road and one that I’m very thankful to have the opportunity to be able to grind through,” Woods said.