Dream Start for Scheffler in His Major Debut

Scottie Scheffler was the only player to finish his round under par on Thursday. (USGA/Fred Vuich)
Scottie Scheffler was the only player to finish his round under par on Thursday. (USGA/Fred Vuich)

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OAKMONT, Pa. – No surprise, but a young golfer with University of Texas ties is on the leader board at the U.S. Open. The surprise is that his name isn’t Jordan Spieth, but amateur Scottie Scheffler, playing in his first major championship.

The teenager, who survived a tough sectional qualifier in Powell, Ohio, to make the field, was the first player to post an under-par round in the 116th U.S. Open, carding a 1-under 69 at Oakmont Country Club during a stormy Thursday. A native of Ridgewood, N.J., Scheffler, 19, moved with his family to Texas when he was 6 and began his march toward becoming one of the nation’s top amateurs. This year, he was a member of the Longhorns’ national runner-up team that lost to Oregon in the final match.

Winner of the 2013 U.S. Junior Amateur, Scheffler was one of just nine players to complete 18 holes. His score was four strokes better than the next-nearest finisher, PGA Tour player Derek Fathauer (73).

He trailed just three players, none of whom completed their rounds, though Andrew Landry was on the ninth green, his final hole, and stood at 3 under par.

“It hasn't really sunk in yet. I played pretty solid,” said Scheffler, who has previously played in two PGA Tour events, including a tie for 22nd in the 2014 HP Byron Nelson Championship in Dallas. “My lag putting was really good on the greens and I made some good 7- and 8-footers that kind of helped me keep the round going toward the end, which was really helpful.”

With his sister, Callie, a fifth-year senior on the Texas A&M women’s team, on the bag, Scheffler’s round of three birdies and two bogeys was relatively stress-free – not a common experience at Oakmont. He hit seven fairways and 12 greens and, perhaps most impressively, didn’t have a three-putt green while using the flat stick 29 times.

Teamwork was an important component. “It's very important to me. I'm glad she was able to get the week off to come help me out,” Scheffler said of his sister, who started a summer internship and had to ask for a week’s vacation. “The comfort level is huge and she's caddied for me in a couple of pro events before. We both kind of know the drill.”

Scheffler began beautifully with an 8-footer for birdie on the 10th, but he turned in even par after missing the fairway and bogeying the 18th. He countered another bogey on No. 1 after pulling his tee shot into the left rough with birdies on Nos. 4 and 7 from 11 and 5 feet, respectively. He capped off his round by getting down from 52 feet on the ninth, the second from 5 feet.

He rushed that last one, eager to not have to come back early in the morning. “Some rest would be good tonight, and honestly, I really wanted to watch the [NBA Finals] basketball game tonight. I wanted to get done so I could stay up late to watch that.”

Kids. They are still just kids, you know.

The performance continued a trend in recent years of amateurs not only climbing onto U.S. Open leader boards, but also contending. Just last year, University of Illinois product Brian Campbell held a share of the second-round lead briefly at Chambers Bay and sat just four strokes behind Spieth and Dustin Johnson through 36 holes.

Scheffler qualified for the championship by shooting 5-under 137 at the sectional in Powell, populated by dozens of tour pros, and then advancing in a 6-for-5 playoff.

He had a chance to play nine holes at Oakmont on Wednesday with Spieth, reigning British Open champion Zach Johnson and William McGirt, recent winner of the Memorial Tournament. All three offered tips and advice, including counsel from McGirt on the proper spikes to wear on his shoes.

Apparently, he’s had no trouble keeping his feet on the ground, in an emotional as well as tangible manner. Though that’s not been easy. “It’s really neat to walk the same fairways where Ben Hogan and all the greats played,” he said.

Somehow, he managed. “The experience is … I can't even describe it right now, but I didn't really let the magnitude of what's going on kind of get to me,” he said. “I think my mental game has a lot to do with it. Just trying to stay as patient as possible and not letting bad shots or maybe a bad hole or a bad stretch get to me.”

Kids. They are still just kids. But some sure mature quickly on a golf course.

Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.