Scottie Scheffler Needs Rivals To Make Golf Interesting Again

US Open at Pinehurst offers latest chance to derail the world’s top player.

AP
Fans walk on the 12th hole during a practice round for the U.S. Open golf tournament June 11, 2024 at Pinehurst, N.C. AP

Every sport needs a good rivalry to drive fan interest, build compelling storylines, and increase television ratings. This year’s 124th U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 lacks an established rival to Scottie Scheffler, limiting the appeal for what might be one of the best individual performances in the sport’s history.

Mr. Scheffler is the favorite to win the America’s national championship this weekend at Pinehurst, having won five tournaments this year. The World No.1 is the first player since Justin Thomas in 2016-2017 to win five tournaments in a season and the first since Tom Watson in 1980 to win five times on the PGA Tour before the U.S. Open. His victory at the Memorial on Sunday was his third signature event win, including Bay Hill and Hilton Head. He also captured the Players Championship and the Masters, joining Tiger Woods as the only player to win the Memorial, Players, and the Masters in the same year.

“Every time he shows up he’s the guy to beat and deservedly so,” Rory McIlroy, the World No. 3, said at Pinehurst on Tuesday, adding, “He’s undoubtedly the best player in the world at this time, and it’s up to us to get to his level.”

When Mr. Woods was on his way to 15 major championships it was a ratings boom for the sport. Despite his dominance, he had rivals: David Duval, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, Vijay Singh, and Mr. McIlroy, all creating a sense of a showdown when they were in their prime. A generation earlier, Jack Nicklaus had his share of rivals, notably Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Lee Trevino, and Tom Watson.

No true rival has consistently challenged Mr. Scheffler during this brilliant stretch of golf. Perhaps one emerges this weekend at Pinehurst where the world’s best golfers gathered for the third major championship that begins with Thursday’s opening round.

Xander Schauffele, winner of the 2024 PGA Championship, can make himself a rival by adding another major championship this weekend, and Mr. McIlroy will join the conversation by ending a 10-year personal drought by capturing his fifth career major. Somebody needs to step up and become part of the golf conversation other than Mr. Scheffler.

Golf needs it and certainly television ratings need it. It’s no secret television ratings on the PGA Tour are down this year. Ratings for the Masters, normally one of the most watched sporting events of the year, dropped 20 percent this year with an average of 9.59 million viewers. Mr. Scheffler won that tournament to capture his second Green Jacket, and four other tournaments including the Memorial last weekend, which attracted just 2.85 million viewers for the final round.

Interestingly, Mr. Scheffler’s well-documented arrest the Friday morning of the PGA Championship helped spike ratings for that tournament. His arrest on second-degree assault of a police officer, third-degree criminal mischief, reckless driving and disregarding traffic signals from an officer went viral and led to an 11 percent viewership increase for the final round on Sunday when Mr. Schauffele outdueled Bryson DeChambeau. But the overall rating was the second-lowest rating for a PGA Championship in the last five years.

The USGA made a smart move grouping Mr. McIlroy, Mr. Schauffele, and Mr. Scheffler for the first two rounds over the Donald Ross layout. “It’s cool to be part of these pairings,” Mr. McIlroy said. “I think at this point, Scottie, Xander, and myself are all experienced enough not to get caught up in it, just to go about our business, try to shoot a couple of good scores to put ourselves in position going into the weekend.”

This is golf’s best chance to regain the interest of the general public. The majors are the only tournaments where the best play against the best. The emergence of LIV Golf has made it more difficult to build rivalries with players like Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Jon Rahm, Mr. DeChambeau, and Brooks Koepka no longer competing on the PGA Tour. Meanwhile, many of the PGA Tour events this year have been won by little-known players like Matthieu Pavon (Farmers Insurance), Jake Knapp (Mexico Open), Greg Lovett (Cognizant Classic), Stephan Jaeger (Houston Open), and Akshay Bhatia (Valero Texas Open).

That leaves Mr. Scheffler as the man to beat this weekend though he doesn’t see a target on his back. “I’m not thinking about my wins anymore,” he said on Tuesday. “I’m just getting focused on getting ready to play. Just because I won last week doesn’t give me any shots against the field this week. We all start at even par.”

Mr. Scheffler, despite a potential record-breaking season, needs help attracting eyeballs. He doesn’t have the dynamic personality that attracts headlines off the course. He is a special talent with a wholesome image again after the charges in Kentucky were recently dropped. But his Q rating will never be very high. According to Sports Pro Media, Mr. Scheffler ranked 91st among the top 100 Most Marketable Athletes of 2023.  Mr. McIlroy, the only other golfer in the top 100, was 29th.

“I try to be present where I am,” Mr. Scheffler said. “When I’m at home, I try to be the best husband and father I can be. When I’m here I’m trying to be the best golfer I can be. I try to give my best in each and everything that I do.”

That should be good enough.


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