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San Diego Union-Tribune

Column: Scheffler's rise leads to incomplete grade on Smith

By DOUG FERGUSON,

2023-03-14

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Jordan Spieth can speak with authority on the remarkable run of Scottie Scheffler, except that Spieth never liked that term when he was the subject.

Spieth had won seven times in 13 months — two majors, a shot at all four of them, No. 1 in the world and a FedEx Cup title — when he showed up at Kapalua to start 2016 and was asked what he had planned for an encore.

“Doesn't an encore mean that the show is then over?” he said.

Golf has a couple of hit shows, and for now Scheffler is top billing.

His superb play in windy conditions for a five-shot victory in The Players Championship was his sixth title in the last 13 months. Scheffler has been No. 1 longer than anyone during that stretch.

But it was only 12 days ago when Jon Rahm, with six victories in the last 13 months, opened with a 65 at Bay Hill and looked as though no one could beat him. Maybe that's still the case. Rahm never made it to the second round at The Players Championship because of a stomach bug.

Rory McIlroy, who also has been No. 1 this year, won his 2023 debut in Dubai . He didn't finish worse than fourth in seven straight tournaments, three of them wins.

All of them are part of a long list of players who have been on big runs, and as Spieth duly noted about Tiger Woods, “one guy that created a career out of a run and became the best ever.”

Missing from the current list is Cameron Smith.

He never gave himself the chance.

Even now, it's hard to say whether Smith was on a heater or had staying power.

He set a record to par at Kapalua to start last year. He won The Players Championship two months later by one-putting eight of his last nine holes. He shot 30 on the back nine at St. Andrews for his first major, one of the great closing rounds in British Open history.

And then he chose to walk away from the toughest competition to cash in on Saudi money and join LIV Golf. No one should begrudge the 29-year-old Australian for his decision, though it remains the most peculiar because of his youth and his potential.

But for such a short sample size — seven months — there's no telling for how long and how hot that flame would burn.

Smith won a 54-hole LIV event last summer in the Chicago suburbs. He celebrated a long-awaited homecoming Down Under by winning the Australian PGA Championship. Otherwise, he hasn't faced world-class competition in seven months.

The Players was awkward on a couple of levels, mainly because Smith wasn't around to defend his title. What resurfaced was a video of PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan at last year's trophy presentation.

“Cam doesn't live far from here, and every single time he pull his car up the main road, he's going to receive a hero's welcome,” Monahan said that day.

Smith no longer has free access to the TPC Sawgrass, or any TPC course, because he's been suspended by the PGA Tour. He was seen playing The Yards, an executive course about a mile away during the opening round. Such were the consequences of his choice.

He is financially set for life. He gets back to golf this week with the LIV event north of Tucson, Arizona. He might win. He might win a lot.

But what does it mean?

So much was made about the new PGA Tour model having eight elite fields with no cuts, because LIV Golf doesn't have a cut. But why the rival circuits are nothing alike is because LIV has only 54 holes with the same 48 players — minus one or two alternates — all year.

Scheffler beat 144 players at Sawgrass, the strongest field of the year. Rahm beat 156 players in the California desert and 120 players at Riviera.

Smith will get his crack four times a year in the majors. That will be his best chance, and really his only avenue, to stay relevant in the conversation of best players.

Until then, the focus will stay with Scheffler, Rahm and McIlroy. Those are the current “Big Three” in golf, and that can change by the end of the year.

The show ends at some point, though maybe not for good.

McIlroy fell from the top to out of the top 10, and while he's clearly on the rise, he still hasn't won a major in nearly nine years.

Jason Day won eight times in 18 starts in 2015 and 2016, without a discernable weakness in his game. He started this year outside the top 100.

David Duval is easily overlooked because his peak was crammed into a short window. He won 11 times in 34 tournaments over 18 months in 1997-99 and was among the few who got to No. 1 when Woods was on top of his game.

At this moment, the attention is on Scheffler and his knack for beating the best.

“I want to win, and I think I get excited when we get to the biggest tournaments and the best players are there,” Scheffler said. “And that’s a lot of fun for me as a player is being able to compete against those guys.”

That pleasure used to belong to Smith, too. He'll get his fill of competing against the best. It just might not be often enough to know how good he could have been.

___

AP golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune .

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