Scottie Scheffler within striking distance at U.S. Open – and his putter is heating up

Scottie Scheffler within striking distance at U.S. Open – and his putter is heating up
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LOS ANGELES – Scottie Scheffler was already enjoying one of the best ball-striking stretches in PGA Tour history.

Now, is his putter finally starting to heat up?

Scheffler opened this 123rd U.S. Open in 3-under 67, five shots back of co-leaders Rickie Fowler and Xander Schauffele, as he rolled in five birdies among 29 putts and gained just over a shot and a half with the putter on Thursday at Los Angeles Country Club.

“Pretty good,” Scheffler said of his putting. “I mean, I rolled it nice, saw some putts go in.”

It was a succinct answer, though it’s hard to blame Scheffler for getting too excited about one strong performance on the greens considering his flatstick hiccups entering this week. Scheffler is ranked No. 148 in strokes gained putting (-0.231 shots per round), hasn’t finished an event inside the top 30 in that stat since winning in Phoenix and lost almost three and a half strokes per round on the greens in his last two starts combined.

Luckily for Scheffler, his ball-striking has carried him as he remains atop the Official World Golf Ranking. He leads the Tour in three major strokes gained categories – off the tee, approach and tee to green – while sitting an elite sixth in strokes gained around the green. Jon Rahm is second in strokes gained tee to green, almost a full shot less than Scheffler. Prior to last week, Scheffler had gained exactly three shots tee to green this calendar year, on pace to rank behind only Tiger Woods’ 2006 display (3.22) in the ShotLink era, which began in 2004.

Rickie Fowler is having a much better Thursday at Los Angeles Country Club than he did a year ago at Brookline.

Scheffler placed third at the Memorial Tournament two weeks ago, gaining 20.69 total shots from tee to green, a performance that had been eclipsed only by Vijay Singh. At Muirfield Village, no player came within nine shots gained of Scheffler with the non-putting clubs. But Scheffler also lost a total of nearly eight and a half strokes with the putter that week.

With Scheffler currently on a run that boasts 16 straight finishes of T-12 or better, including two wins and eight top-5s (four straight entering the U.S. Open), it’s not hard to wonder what that record would look like had Scheffler just been a tad better with the flatstick.

Scheffler certainly knows the possibilities if he’s even an average performer on the greens, which is why he switched putters for this week’s U.S. Open, going to a slightly wider Scotty Cameron Timeless Tourtype GSS that features a smooth face and aluminum sole plate.

“I don’t ever take decisions on switching equipment lightly,” Scheffler said Tuesday. “I think it’s strange that I’ve been struggling the past few weeks with my putter. … I mean, sometimes you just got to bring another putter around there to make the original one scared.”

Fear not, Scheffler fans, as the replacement may be sticking around a little longer.

Scheffler began his opening round at LACC, a course that he played a Walker Cup on six years ago, with a shocking bogey. He drove his ball up against the lip of the left fairway bunker, wedged his third shot into another trap and couldn’t convert his 20-footer for par.

Full-field scores from U.S. Open

“There’s literally one place on the entire hole you can hit it where you won’t have a shot,” Scheffler said, “and my ball found its way in there.”

From there, Scheffler spun his wheels for a bit, carding par after par on an easier side of the course. But when he got a 7-footer for birdie to drop after a beautiful tee ball at the par-3 ninth, Scheffler caught fire. He canned birdie putts of 18 feet and 19 feet at Nos. 10 and 12, respectively. Later he got a pair of 9-footers for birdie to drop, at Nos. 15 and 16. Sure, he whiffed on a 3-footer for par to three-putt the last, but overall, Scheffler was pleased with the display.

“It was frustrating to get off to that slow of a start,” Scheffler said, “but I still was able to shoot 3 under, so I was most proud of how I hung in there today and played some solid golf.”

Earlier this week, Scheffler was peppered with questions about his putting struggles, to which Scheffler responded with an insightful thought as to why he wasn’t fretting like some of his critics.

“Putting is different because it’s one of those things that has finality attached to it,” Scheffler explained. “Whereas if I hit a really good 6-iron, sometimes it’s going to go to 2 feet and sometimes it’s going to go to 15 feet. It’s like, oh, well to you it doesn’t make a huge difference. If I hit a 6-footer and I hit a really good putt and one time it goes in and then one time it doesn’t, everyone is like, ‘Oh, why did he miss that putt?’ It’s like, ‘Well actually, I hit a really good putt and there’s a heel print, there’s something.’

“Putting is such like an art that I try not to add too much finality to what I’m doing on the greens.”

If all 14 of Scheffler’s paintbrushes keep cooperating, the finished canvas come Sunday evening could show a U.S. Open-winning picture.

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