The four-putt double bogey on No. 18? Forget it. The winning margin was three shots. He led the tournament for all of its final 44 holes.
“You know, I never expected to be sitting where I am now,” Scheffler said after the green jacket ceremony. “You don’t expect things to come to you in this life. You just do the best that you can with the hand you’re dealt and just go from there. I never really thought I was that good at golf. So I just kept practicing and kept working hard, and that’s just what I’m going to keep doing.”
Smith, who closed to within a shot of the lead in the first two holes, never got so close again and finally fell off pace with a triple-bogey 6 from Rae’s Creek on the par-3 No. 12. McIlroy, who opened the day 10 shots back, fired a tournament-low 64, including a surreal holed bunker shot for birdie on 18.
But Scheffler kept a couple steps ahead all day and, when a door needed bolting, he did so with consecutive birdies on Nos. 14 and 15. McIlroy ran out of holes. Smith ran out of poise.
“Even if I had birdied (14 and 15 after an eagle at 13), maybe I would have put more pressure on Scottie,” McIlroy said. “But he’s finished this thing really well today, and there’s not much more I could have done about that.”
McIlroy, who still has yet to win the Masters, was an estimable runner-up for the first time. Smith, who closed with a 1-over 73, tied Shane Lowry for third five shots back. Collin Morikawa, who like playing partner McIlroy holed out his final bunker shot, finished six shots back.
“It was definitely nice to build up a lead,” said Scheffler, the only player with four sub-par rounds (69-67-71-71). “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. You know, I just blocked most of that out and tried to execute and hit good golf shots.”
The win extends an extraordinary binge of his quality play. The victory was his fourth in his past six events, dating back to the Phoenix Open on Feb. 13. Ranked as high as 24th last year, he quickly rose in the world rankings to No. 1 after he won the WGC Match Play title on March 27. With his $2.7 million winner’s share at the Masters, he has now banked $8.87 million in eight weeks.
His age should also be noted. At 25 and 10 months, he becomes to seventh-youngest player to bag his first Masters, yielding to some estimable company: Tiger Woods (21), Jordan Spieth (21), Seve Ballesteros (23), Jack Nicklaus (23), Byron Nelson (25 and 2 months) and Gary Player (25 and 5 months)
Scheffler confessed to being so stressed out before coming to the course that he spent time crying during the morning. And then the day got close as soon as he hit the course. Smith, who started three shots back, immediately cut the margin to two with a 13-foot birdie on the first hole and when he birdied the par-5 second with a 7-footer, the lead stood at one.
But the third hole wound up swaying the tournament. Both players drove into a pine grove on the left but Scheffler, granted relief from a lie behind a scoreboard, hit a bump-and-run into the green’s left edge. On the following chip, the ball may have had too much speed but caught the center of the cup for birdie and Smith bogeyed from a similar lie. The lead went back to three shots and was never lessened.
“I would say what is most pivotal was getting that ball up-and-down,” Scheffler said of the chip. “To have it go in was obviously off the charts. But my main goal was just to get up-and-down and see it go in was definitely special. Parring 4 and 5 was huge as well. After that, I kind of just started cruising.”
Scheffler’s lead still hung at three shots when they came to No. 12, where Smith splashed his tee ball, misplayed his provisional to the right of the green and wound up losing three shots with a triple bogey to fall back by six. Scheffler, despite the poke-a-putt on No. 18, played the final eight holes in even par, which was all he needed.
“Just a really bad swing at the wrong time,” Smith said of his tee shot. “It was actually a really good number. It was a really nice 9-iron. Wasn’t even trying to go near that pin. Just a really poor swing.”
After three days of starched-flag conditions, Augusta National attempted to kiss and make up during the last round. After yielding just 21 sub-par rounds to the field of 90 the first two days, 37 players broke par on Sunday, 71% of the field. After averaging 74.58 on a cold and breezy Saturday, the field scored an average 72.4 just 24 hours later.
Woods completed his final round as he had his third with another 78, matching his career-high round set the day before. In his first Tour competition since his automobile wreck 14 months ago, he finished 13 over par, tied for 47th place. His previous highest Masters finish had been 5 over in 2012, when he tied for 40th.
“It’s been a tough road and one that I’m very thankful to have the opportunity to be able to grind through it,” Woods said. “A lot of different things could have happened, but 14 months (later), I’m able to tee it up and play in the Masters.”
The sentiment wasn’t lost on the new champion, who waited for his 11th major before finally winning one.
“It’s Augusta National,” Scheffler said. “This is as cool as it gets.”