Thursday, February 29, 2024 Feb 29, 2024
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Could Spieth Versus Scheffler Become Dallas’ (And Golf’s) Next Great Rivalry?

Their backgrounds are eerily similar. Starting with this week's Byron Nelson, their futures could be, too.
By Mark Godich |

The golf world is descending on Dallas this week, and that got me thinking: has it really been a dozen years since Jordan Spieth burst onto the scene, playing his way into contention at the tournament now known as the AT&T Byron Nelson?

You’re probably familiar with the story. Spieth, a decorated 16-year-old junior golfer at Jesuit, wrote tournament organizers seeking a sponsor’s exemption to the event named after one of the legends of the game. He played his way into the top 10 after rounds of 68-69-67 at TPC Las Colinas, didn’t so much as blink while looking into the cameras on Saturday and saying he believed he could win, and got within three shots of the lead on Sunday before slipping into a tie for 16th. 

Scottie Scheffler was 8 years old when he first crossed paths with Spieth. In the years since, he has followed a similar arc, with one glaring exception. While Spieth roared onto the scene, Scheffler took longer to break through. It wasn’t that long ago when everyone wondered when the Highland Park alum would collect his first victory on the game’s biggest stage. Granted, he had stuck around for four years at the University of Texas and was hovering in the top 30 of the world rankings. But he was also 25. The clock was ticking. 

The turning point came at the Ryder Cup last September, after Steve Stricker selected Scheffler with the last of his six captain’s picks. Eyebrows were raised, but Scheffler validated the selection with an outstanding week, highlighted by a win over world No. 1 Jon Rahm in a Sunday singles match. And wouldn’t you know, in February, Scheffler outlasted Patrick Cantlay in a playoff at the WM Phoenix Open. He won again three weeks later at Arnie’s place, then prevailed at the WGC Dell-Match Play Championship, a victory that propelled him to No. 1 in the world rankings. Two weeks later, he won the Masters. Can’t win? Scheffler racked up four victories in seven starts, including a major. It was not unlike the run Spieth went on in 2015, when he won five times and bagged two majors.

Spieth has his own green jacket, which came early in that dream season. He has had one arm in a second, and dare we say, could have won two or three more. Even during the down times in what has already been a roller-coaster career, he always seemed to rediscover the magic when he set foot on the grounds at Augusta National. Entering this year, he had never missed a cut in eight starts, with the win, a T2, a T11, a third, and a T3 among his finishes. His name is splashed all over the Masters record book. 

He owned the place. And then he didn’t. He missed the cut last month, right as Scheffler became the new darling among Dallas natives at Augusta National. Now the two will break bread at the annual Champions Dinner, one of the most coveted invitations in golf. And they will forever be connected as Masters champions, arguably the most exclusive club in the game.

All of this raises the question: might we be on the verge of a budding rivalry? The elements are all there, as their backgrounds are eerily similar. Both were born in the Northeast before moving to Dallas at a young age. Both enjoyed celebrated junior careers before starring at Texas, although Spieth spent just a year in residence. Each married his high school sweetheart. Both have Dallas-based swing instructors going back to their junior days: Cameron McCormack (Spieth) and Randy Smith (Scheffler).

And look how they won the Masters. Both displayed superb ball-striking for two rounds while bolting to a five-shot lead. Both were in the late/early tee-time draw, which meant sitting on the 36-hole lead for more than 24 hours while hunting their first major. Both seemed in control during the third round, only to be waylaid by a late hiccup: a double bogey by Spieth at the 17th hole; an errant tee shot by Scheffler at the 18th, which led to an unplayable lie and a penalty stroke. Both scrambled at the last hole to salvage the round. Spieth made par out of a greenside bunker, while Scheffler hit a 250-yard missile to escape with bogey. Both experienced early jitters on Sunday before winning in a walk. Both would’ve won by four had Scheffler merely three-putted the 72nd green.

While attending my first Masters in 2015 as the golf editor at Sports Illustrated, I was struck by Spieth’s demeanor at the media scrum after his opening-round 64. He was so poised and insightful for a kid of 21. It was, in a word, refreshing. As the number of inquisitors swelled, I heard more of the same after a second-round 66 and a Saturday 70. I got the same sense while back home watching Scheffler’s post-round interviews. He was so calm and collected for a guy who was playing in just his fourth major as a professional. After his victory, he showed his vulnerability, saying he had cried that morning because he didn’t know if he was big enough for the moment.

Not surprisingly, Scheffler’s surge made Spieth something of a forgotten man. Ever the optimist, he said he was close. He said he was swinging well—a lipped-out putt or an unfortunate bounce from playing the weekend at Augusta. (In fact, even after triple-bogeying the 12th on Friday, he would’ve made the cut had he parred the 18th. He doubled it.) You would be forgiven for being skeptical.

Maybe you’ve also forgotten that Spieth has been down this road before. Many wondered how long it would take him to recover from the 12th-hole debacle at the 2016 Masters. He won seven weeks later, at Colonial, then collected his third major at the 2017 Open Championship. So it probably shouldn’t have been surprising that, in the wake of that missed cut at the tournament he cherishes more than any other, Spieth rebounded. Of course he did. And he did it in remarkable fashion. He won the following week at the RBC Heritage, putting on a ball-striking clinic on a tight, demanding course to beat Cantlay in a playoff. Second-guessed, if not ridiculed for his unorthodox pre-shot routine, during which he draws the club to the top as if he’s about to make the actual swing, Spieth led the field in shots gained tee to green. The guy who so often has rescued rounds with his flat stick would have won going away had he been even average on the greens. He was 60th in the field in shots gained putting, and his struggles included a miss from 18 inches at the last hole on Saturday, when he carelessly swiped at the ball after his birdie putt slid by. The player who nosedived to 92nd in the world rankings in the depth of his slump is now back up to ninth.

Now Spieth and Scheffler will tee it up in a tournament where victory would mean more than any other, majors aside. The hometown ties, having your name on Lord Byron’s trophy, winning in front of family and friends—it’s all there. After a dismal two-year run at Trinity Forest and a COVID-induced cancellation of the 2020 event, the Nelson moved to TPC Craig Ranch in McKinney in 2021. For the first two rounds, Spieth and Scheffler played in one of the marquee groups along with Will Zalatoris, another transplanted Dallasite. The TV types had a field day, posting pictures of the golfers from their junior days. Spieth had the better of things, tying for ninth compared to Scheffler’s 47th-place finish.

This week they will be among the favorites, both with the fans and in betting circles. They have undergone a role reversal of sorts. Even as his feet slide like those of a hockey player about to lose an edge—a move no swing instructor would endorse—Scheffler has always been a premier ball-striker. But he didn’t start winning until he started holing more putts. He’s 20th on the PGA Tour this season in strokes gained putting. Spieth is (gulp!) 186th. But he’s also 21st in shots gained tee to green, nine spots above Scheffler.

From the Nelson, they’ll head to Southern Hills in Tulsa for the PGA Championship. Scheffler is bidding to become the first player to win the first two legs of the grand slam since one Jordan Spieth won the Masters and the U.S. Open in 2015. That was the year Spieth climbed to No. 1 in the world after finishing a shot out of the playoff at the Open Championship and taking second at the PGA.

Now, for the sixth time, Spieth is looking to become the sixth player to complete the career grand slam, joining Nicklaus, Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, and Tiger Woods. Scheffler, who calls Southern Hills his favorite course, will be among the contenders standing in Spieth’s way.

Buckle up. The Dallas guys with so many parallels appear headed on a collision course.

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