Masters Sunday becomes showdown between Scheffler, Smith

AUGUSTA - As Scottie Scheffler and his sage caddie - Bubba Watson’s man from his two championships here – were conducting a search and rescue mission in largely unexplored brush left of the fairway at 18 Saturday, all matters Masters got a lot more interesting.

What was taking on the look of a ratings-killing rout by the world’s No. 1-ranked player was suddenly being recast as a head-to-head battle between earth’s two hottest golfers. And classic conflict is what we come here for, not some one-man off-Broadway Sunday matinee.

What a fitting final pairing we have in store. There’s Scheffler (9 under), winner of three of his last five tournaments. And Aussie Cameron Smith (6 under), winner of two of his last four, including the prestigious Players Championship. The three-stroke margin is far more manageable than the cushion Scheffler was threatening to build early in the third round.

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Scheffler began Saturday five up on the field, and he bulked it up to as many as six on the front 9. But winning one’s first major can’t be that simple. The cruise turned difficult as Scheffler ran into four bogeys over his final seven holes, including a closing one on No. 18 after taking an unplayable and needing brilliant long iron to eventually get up and down for a 5 on the par 4.

Meanwhile, Smith shot the day’s only round in the 60s (68) and became the most feasible threat to blunt Scheffler’s plans to go all Godzilla and just lay waste to the field. Just in time, they performed a little leaderboard liposuction here to tighten things up a bit and keep it watchable for another day more. That the man in the lead is on the roll of his – or for that matter just about anyone’s – life is mitigated by the fact that Smith and his magical touch around the green is almost as stupid hot.

Smith likes his chances, given that his recent slow dance with victory “means I can get it done when I’m up against the best guys in the world,” he said.

“It’s a good feeling to have. It’s earned. It’s not given to you. So, I’m going to have to go out there tomorrow and play really good golf again, probably similar to today. Hopefully everything just falls into place.”

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What Scheffler has going for him is a similar relationship with winning as well as a calm outward demeanor that is a great fit for a Sunday at the Masters. His idea of a good time off the course is playing board games with family and friends. And if anyone is capable of building a hotel on every square of this green version of Monopoly, it just might be Scheffler.

Look at how players reported to work Saturday, dressed as if clocking in at a meat locker. Their blood turned thin by too many laps around Florida and Texas, this field treated a gusty 50-degree day as an Arctic expedition. In his ski cap, Kevin Kisner, the Georgia Dog, looked ready to trade his scorecard for a lift ticket. Dustin Johnson and Collin Morikawa swathed their necks in the very latest in high-tech cloth that is bound to be the rage in chilly bingo halls everywhere.

There was Scheffler, seemingly unaffected by most any external condition, building a comfortable compromise with the cold. It was only between shots that he slipped a vest over his long-sleeve pullover. It was a vest that appeared bulletproof for much of the day.

Such an accepting attitude was, he said, slowly won.

“I was a bit of a hothead I think in high school and college, so to be able to just stay patient and realize mistakes are going to come and that winning golf tournaments out here is not easy. Knowing that bad things are going to happen and being able to react to those things in a positive way is extremely important.”

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His response to trouble may be telling for Sunday challenges. Scheffler could three-putt for an ugly bogey on the par-5 15th then respond with an approach to five feet on 17 for a birdie. His tee shot on 18 snapped far left into what may be the ugliest tangle of brush on this whole revered property, a place that no one ever visits. Yet once he retrieved the ball and negotiated a drop in the pinestraw, Scheffler pulled off one of the purest 3-irons ever struck. On line with the pin, the shot rolled just over the green. Sometimes a bogey is a tribute to talent, too.

There are others lurking about the fringes, of course, but we like simple themes. Sunday presents one in the form of the final twosome on the final day, 25-year-old Scheffler and the 28-year-old Smith, two up-and-coming hotshots trying to surf a wave of success right up to the shore of a first major title.

Isn’t that just so much more watchable than Scheffler playing the role of freight train with everyone else just pennies on the track? That’s how it looked early Saturday.

Said Scheffler, who has finishes of 19th and 18th in two previous Masters, “This is a lot more fun than a lot of the starts that I’ve had in major championships, especially around this golf course. So, for me, this is a good time, and, you know, today was a lot of fun, and, you know, hopefully tomorrow will be the same.”

Such is the hope for contestant and spectator alike.