Early-week change from blade to mallet putter at Bay Hill proves fruitful

ORLANDO, Fla. – Scottie Scheffler’s goal this week was simple. He was done trying to be perfect with the putter. He knew each time that his ball slid past the hole, even when it missed by the narrowest of margins, that the shot would be shown on television and social media, and the conversation would continue about the state of his putting.

Putting is the most fickle part of this frustrating game for a reason. The margins are so small and the results are binary. Miss or make. Those are the only two options. There is no middle ground. Scheffler committed this week to focusing on all that he could control – his stroke – and worrying less about the rest.

“If you’re trying to play perfect golf, it doesn’t really work,” Scheffler said. “There’s no such thing. … Sometimes when things aren’t going right, you try to be perfect.”

Golf showed itself to be an endearing paradox once again because by embracing the game’s inherent imperfections, Scheffler put on a flawless display in the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard. He won by five strokes – the largest winning margin here since Tiger Woods in 2012 – and collected his first PGA TOUR win since last year’s PLAYERS Championship. Scheffler’s ball-striking was up to the record-setting standard he’s shown over the past year, and the putter finally served as the perfect complement.

Add it all up and Scheffler was unstoppable. The final round from Bay Hill Club & Lodge was devoid of drama shortly after he made the turn. His final-round 66 was the low round of the day by two shots and he was the only player to go bogey-free Sunday. Only three other players broke 70 in the final round when Bay Hill played to a 73.2 scoring average. By finishing at 15-under 273 (70-67-70-66), Scheffler finished five shots ahead of runner-up Wyndham Clark, the reigning U.S. Open champion who’s already claimed one Signature Event in 2024.

This week, Scheffler led the field in Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green, SG: Off-the-Tee and was second in Greens in Regulation. He also was first in SG: Around-the-Green. The most newsworthy of all the numbers was Scheffler’s performance in SG: Putting. He ranked fifth for the week, finishing in the top five of this metric for just the third time in his career.

After a year in which Scheffler’s struggles with the putter were thrust into the spotlight, it was a welcome sight.

“This one’s pretty special,” Scheffler said Sunday evening. “It had been a while since I won. … There had been a lot of chatter about my game and the state of where it was at, and so it was nice to kind of come in here with a good mental attitude and to perform well under pressure and I think today’s round was really special for me going forward.”

Sunday was supposed to be the sort of star-studded showdown that the Signature Events were created for. The TOUR’s best players were gathered at the top of the leaderboard on one of the most difficult courses they face all year. Bay Hill is the only course that has ranked as one of the 10 most difficult on TOUR in each of the five previous seasons.

Instead, Sunday quickly served as a reminder of Scheffler’s ability to dominate, especially when the conditions are toughest. This win was Scheffler’s seventh on the PGA TOUR, and all of them have come in the past 25 months. Those wins include his victory at the 2022 Masters, where he took a five-shot lead to the final hole before a meaningless four-putt, and another five-shot win at last year’s PLAYERS.

Scheffler and Shane Lowry, the 2019 Open champion, started the final round from Bay Hill in a tie for the lead at 9 under par. Clark, the winningest top-10 player in the world over the past 12 months, was just one shot back.

Hideki Matsuyama trailed by two in his first start since shooting a final-round 62 to win Tiger Woods’ Genesis Invitational, as did a resurgent Will Zalatoris, whose comeback from back surgery has outpaced expectations. Rory McIlroy had surged into contention by tying Bay Hill’s back-nine scoring record Saturday when he became the first player to drive the course’s par-4 10th hole. He was within reach of the lead, tied with Max Homa and Scheffler’s best buddy, Sam Burns, at 5-under par to start the final day.

While others struggled with the thick rough, swirling wind and large lakes that Bay Hill is known for, Scheffler remained steady. He shot 2-under on the front nine to pull three ahead. He was the only player who started Sunday in the top 10 of the leaderboard to break par on Bay Hill’s front nine. The other nine players averaged 38 strokes on the opening nine.

He did it with a series of clutch putts, starting with a 13-foot birdie putt on the first hole. He holed a 6-foot par putt at the next. After Clark pulled within one shot with his birdie at the par-5 sixth hole, Scheffler followed with a 7-foot birdie putt of his own and holed another 7-footer on the next hole to save par.

Scheffler took a three-shot lead to the back nine after Clark’s bogey at No. 9. Then Scheffler holed birdie putts of 8 and 6 feet on Nos. 10 and 11 to take a five-shot lead. No one got any closer over the final seven holes. Holing a 35-footer for birdie on the 15th hole was akin to running up the score, and he added one final birdie on 16 after laying up and knocking a wedge a few feet from the hole.

Scheffler gained more than four strokes on the greens for the week, with the majority of those coming Sunday, when he holed all 16 putts he faced from inside 10 feet.

The 3.89 strokes Scheffler gained on the greens Sunday was the fourth-most in a single round in his career, and his best since the 2021 Shriners Children’s Open.

“It would be borderline unfair if he starts putting really good,” said Clark. “I never want to wish ill on anybody, but if he starts putting positive each week it’s going to be really hard to beat.”

Even when putting poorly, Scheffler was, without question, the most consistent player in the game over the past year.

His 17 top-10s last season were the most since Vijay Singh in 2005. In 19 events between the 2023 PLAYERS and this week, Scheffler finished outside the top 10 just four times. His continued ability to contend was carried almost entirely by his ball-striking, leading many to wonder how dominant he could be if he was just average on the greens.

Scheffler was the 2023 PGA TOUR Player of the Year and No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking despite ranking 162nd in Strokes Gained: Putting last season. Last year, he became the first player to lead the TOUR in both Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee and Approach-the-Green in the same season.

“It’s hard whenever someone is such a good person and has so many great attributes and people only want to highlight what he’s struggling with,” said Scheffler’s caddie, Ted Scott. “The key to being at the top of this game is how do you deal with all the noise and play with what’s inside your heart and inside your head. He’s really special at that, and even as special as he is, it’s still a difficult thing sometimes.”

Every putter change and short miss by Scheffler over the past year has been scrutinized, and the inordinate attention began to frustrate even Scheffler. He enlisted noted putting coach Phil Kenyon before the Ryder Cup but the struggles seemed to continue this year, as Scheffler finished in the top 10 in four of his first five starts of 2024 despite ranking 144th in putting.

“It’s frustrating to not have the best of myself, just because I know that I can putt really well,” Scheffler said. “It’s not like I’ve been a bad putter my whole career. I’ve just gone through a stretch where it’s been tough. I think this week I did a really good job of not letting the misses get to me. Teddy (Scott, Scheffler’s caddie) did a really good job of keeping me in a good head space and we stayed positive out there and I hit a lot of good putts, a lot of good putts this week.”

This week, Scheffler changed from his usual blade putter to a more forgiving mallet. It undoubtedly helped, but so did Scheffler’s mindset. He didn’t panic after missing a 6-foot putt on his opening hole of the tournament and losing 1.5 strokes on the greens Thursday. He gained strokes on the greens in each of the next three rounds.

“My process was really good this week,” Scheffler said, “and the results so far are pretty tough to argue with, I would say.”

SOURCE: [pgatour.com]