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The Lead Horse

Scottie Scheffler has come a long way in a short space of time—the Texan has won six times in the past 18 months, after all—yet looking back to his childhood days at Royal Oaks CC in Dallas, something truly special always seemed likely. Scheffler spoke to Robin Barwick.

The Lead Horse

Scottie Scheffler has come a long way in a short space of time—the Texan has won six times in the past 18 months, after all—yet looking back to his childhood days at Royal Oaks CC in Dallas, something truly special always seemed likely. Scheffler spoke to Robin Barwick.

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oel Edwards is among the many tour golfers who have spent days on end working on their game at Royal Oaks Country Club on the north side of Dallas. Royal Oaks is a friendly, family club with a good parkland golf course and excellent practice facilities, and one day about 15 years ago, Edwards was on the range, dialing in his wedges under the tutelage of head professional Randy Smith. There was a pole on the range, 80 yards away, and Edwards was using it as his target. “Joel was hitting these wedge shots so good,” recalls Smith, who joined Royal Oaks as the assistant pro in 1976. He was soon promoted to head professional, never left the club and is now golf professional emeritus and director of instruction.

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Royal Oaks Country Club.

A skinny little kid, one of the juniors named Scottie, wandered up and asked what Edwards was working on. “I’m hitting this 80-yard shot,” said Edwards, who had a PGA Tour title under his belt, from 2001. “Pretty good, huh?”

The kid took out his wedge, rolled over a spare ball, took aim at the pole and bang! hit it square on the first attempt.

Edwards turned around, and Scottie was grinning from ear to ear, “Like that?” he asked.

“Scottie took a few more shots at the pole and hit it twice more,” recalls Smith. “Out of six shots, he hit the pole three times. Joel went crazy. He was losing it. He said, ‘I’m not leaving here until I hit that pole!’

“I moved on to go and teach someone else, and then about an hour later I heard this ker-ching! Joel had finally hit the pole. Joel and Scottie were both jumping around high fiving, with Scottie not two and a half feet tall.

“It became ridiculous with the things Scottie could do, and he would drive the tour golfers crazy.”

The Scheffler family moved from New Jersey to Dallas when Scottie was seven, and finding the right country club was a high priority.

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Scheffler at the 2021 Ryder Cup [left] and with Smith [right].

Royal Oaks was great for my whole family because it has a pool,” starts Scheffler—who is the sole brother among three Scheffler sisters—in an exclusive interview with Kingdom. “There is a driving range with golf balls and a golf course, and that is all I needed, and the club took care of me. With Randy being around the whole time, it was just such a fun place to hang out. We could play tennis and sometimes we would even play football on the driving range. Randy made it such a fun and welcoming place for us kids, which perhaps is not all that common for country clubs. It was a great place for an 8-year-old to spend 10 hours every day.”

Royal Oaks has nurtured a string of tour players since Smith arrived in the late 1970s, and Scheffler—the Masters champion of 2022—is third in line of the club’s major champs. One of Smith’s first pupils was another under-sized kid with a special touch around the greens, Justin Leonard, who went on to win The Open at Royal Troon in 1997, and Gary Woodland came up at Royal Oaks before claiming the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in 2019. Harrison Fraser, Anthony Kim, Colt Knost and Martin Laird all made their way onto the PGA Tour via Royal Oaks and Smith’s coaching.

“One of the coolest things about Royal Oaks,” says Scheffler, “is that Randy would be teaching Justin or Gary or others, and I could just sit there and watch. I would do it for hours and hours—just sit there on one of those range buckets and watch Randy teach and watch the guys practice, and I learned a ton from those guys.”

“To have strong juniors, a club needs a lead horse,” says Smith, 71, a PGA of America Hall of Famer since 2005. “A lead horse is a young player who is really good and who all the younger kids want to watch and hang out with, and they want to see what he is doing. That really happened at Royal Oaks when Justin was a junior. The beauty of it was that those kids were taking in what Justin did. It wasn’t so much about what I was teaching them, but that they were seeing how a U.S. amateur champion worked on his golf. They would see his work ethic.”

On one occasion—once he was established on tour and a major champion—Leonard was comparing a new set of wedges to his existing set.

“I would go through two or three sets of wedges a year at that time,” says Leonard. “The old wedges weren’t really very worn out, the grooves were still pretty good, but on tour we always like to have really sharp grooves. Randy asked if he could have them, and then a couple days later I was back at the club and I saw Scottie with my old wedges, after Randy had cut down the shafts. I think that happened for a couple years, where Scottie would end up with my discarded wedges.”

It wasn’t long before Scheffler assumed the role of lead horse himself, particularly once he had equaled the record set by Jordan Spieth of winning the individual Texas state title three years in a row, 2012 to 2014. Aged 17 in 2013, Scheffler added the U.S. Junior Amateur title to his honor roll.

“Whenever Scottie and I get to work at the club, there will be four kids, aged between 11 and 18, and they will run out there and call distances for him, they’ll get him water, and then Scottie will have putting contests with them,” adds Smith. “For me as a golf professional, it is one of the most rewarding things to see.”    

Riding High

Since turning professional in 2018, Scheffler’s rise was steady at first, but with a sharply steepening trajectory over the past two years. He is World No. 1 (at the time of writing in June), a major champion and a six-time winner on the PGA Tour since the start of 2022. He is not just the lead horse at Royal Oaks anymore, and it can be hard to compute that less than two years ago he was really the last man onto the U.S. Ryder Cup team.

“That’s true,” admits Scheffler, who had a lot of top-five finishes on tour by the fall of 2021, and had shown real match-play guile in the spring by finishing runner-up to Billy Horschel in the 2021 WGC Match Play at Austin Country Club.

“I was the lowest-ranked player on the team, and I was the only player who had not won on the PGA Tour yet, so I really was the last man in,” he says. “We had such a talented team, and I was just fortunate to be part of it. I knew I had the backing of a few of the guys in the room when it came to rounding out who was going to play on the team. Some of the guys helped make that decision, and it means a lot when you get support like that.”

Scheffler partnered Bryson DeChambeau in both series of fourball matches, halving the first point and winning the next, before he teed up third in the decisive singles matches and dispatched European alpha Jon Rahm 4-and-3. There is no ignoring a result like that.

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Scheffler after winning the Masters and with the Arnold Palmer Invitational trophy at Bay Hill.

“I was in a good spot with my game,” recalls Scheffler. “I was moving up the world ranking, continuously improving, and then I had a great Sunday, and I was able to beat Jon in that environment, which definitely gave me some confidence moving forward.”

On that note, Scheffler went home after the Ryder Cup and promptly broke his own course record at Royal Oaks, shooting two halves of 29 for a 58 off the back tees.

In February 2022, Scheffler claimed his first PGA Tour victory at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, defeating Patrick Cantlay in a playoff, and then this lead horse really bolted. Scheffler won the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill 21 days later, took the WGC Match Play for his third win in five starts, shot up to World No. 1 for the first time, and then tried on a green jacket for size at Augusta National, defeating Rory McIlroy by three shots in the Masters. He collected four wins in a stretch of only six tournaments and became the first golfer since Arnold Palmer to record four wins in a season by the Masters. And pause for breath.

Now a six-time PGA Tour winner (writing after the 2023 U.S. Open, where Scheffler finished third), back to World No. 1 and basically the first name on the U.S. Ryder Cup team sheet for Rome, Scheffler is just doing what comes naturally, and that means keeping things simple.

“I like being No. 1 a lot more than being No. 2,” he says, “but it is not something that gets me up in the morning. I just love competing, I love playing golf, and that is what gets me motivated. I always go back to simplicity. I try my best in every tournament, in every round, no matter what position I am in. I don’t place long-term goals or expectations on myself. I just keep working hard and let the results be the results.”

Just like when he hit that pole from 80 yards, three times in six shots, Scheffler doesn’t need to think too much for things to work out.


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