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PGA CHAMPIONSHIP '24: Scheffler takes aim at another major at Valhalla course favorable to No. 1

Only 31 days separate that moment from when Scottie Scheffler slipped on the Masters green jacket to when the world's No. 1 player embarks on the second leg of the Grand Slam at the PGA Championship.

And yet it seems so much has transpired in such a short period of time.

Fresh off his second Masters victory, Scheffler beat another strong field in the RBC Heritage for his fourth win in five tournaments. That made the gap between him and everyone else in the world ranking the widest since the peak years of Tiger Woods. And then he disappeared to Dallas to await the birth of his first child.

A sleepy time in golf came to life, however.

First it was Rory McIlroy, coming off another Masters disappointment, injecting much-needed fun back into his golf by partnering with Irish pal Shane Lowry to win in New Orleans. It was a team event, sure. It felt important to McIlroy. That much was evident when he got on stage and belted out, “Don't Stop Believin'” by Journey.

“I couldn't believe he was doing it, to be honest,” Lowry said.

And then halfway around the world, Brooks Koepka finally got fed up with his ordinary play. He called his performance at the Masters — he never broke par over four rounds — a wake-up call. And he woke up with 17 birdies in 54 holes to win in Singapore.

The significance was not so much becoming the first player to win four LIV Golf titles. It was the timing — his final start before defending his title in the PGA Championship.

“I think the embarrassment of Augusta really kicked things into overdrive for me and really having to put my nose down and grind it a little bit harder,” Koepka said. “I'm not looking to do that again.”

Scheffler remains the overwhelming favorite — +350 according to BetMGM Sportsbook, with McIlroy next at +1200 — when the 106th PGA Championship returns to Valhalla in Louisville, Kentucky, on May 16-19 for the fourth time.

The last two PGA champions at Valhalla were No. 1 in the world — McIlroy in 2014, Tiger Woods in 2000. The difference is the calendar. This will be the first PGA Championship at Valhalla in May. The club, now privately owned, changed the fairway turf from bent to zoysia, which can be cut shorter and runs fasters.

Scheffler had high expectations at Augusta National, coming off two wins and a runner-up finish, and he delivered a four-shot victory.

The only question for the PGA Championship is going three weeks without competition — rare for Scheffler in the middle of a season — and arriving amid a life-changing moment.

And to think it was only two months ago when his position as golf's No. 1 player was in question during a stretch of poor putting, to the point that Scheffler was expending a lot of energy off the course blocking out the noise.

He finds this more manageable.

“I think I'd rather have the target on my back than be in any other position,” Scheffler said as he was leaving Harbour Town. “It is challenging walking into the press room every week because I was No. 1 in the world for a long time last year. But I was never answering questions like, ‘Hey, you’ve been playing great.' It was more like, ‘Hey, you’ve been playing great BUT you've been doing this one thing really, really bad.”

He laughed before adding, “I think it might be tougher to handle that kind of stuff.”

The target is substantial. Jim Nantz, who has called every PGA Championship for CBS since 1991, recalled being at a recent roundtable with golf greats like Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, Lee Trevino and Gary Player. It wasn't long before the conversation turned to Scheffler.

“After I heard what they think of his game, I don't think there's any kind of limitations we can put on Scottie Scheffler,” Nantz said. “I'm not trying to put words in their mouths, but I got a sense they were talking about a player that's going to be a dominant player for a long time.”

High praise also is coming from Woods, with whom Scheffler has been compared.

The 27-year-old Texan doesn't pile up the wins, the majors and the moments that Woods did for the better part of a decade. It's all about the strike from tee-to-green that keeps him in just about every tournament

Scheffler has played 22 tournaments the last 12 months. He finished in the top five in half of them, with five victories.

“You just stand back and you watch the ball flight, there's something different about his. It's just so consistent,” Woods said on the “Today” show. "If he putts decent, he's going to win. If he he putts great, he blows away fields. If he has a bad putting week, he contends.

“He's just that good of a ball striker.”

The last two weeks have at least raised possibilities of reliable challengers. McIlroy has gone 10 years since his last major — the PGA Championship at Valhalla — and the freedom he showed in New Orleans offers hope that he can make a good run at ending the drought.

Koepka seems to a threat at every major, and his win in Singapore would indicate that his iron play is close to where he wants it. He will try to match Woods with four PGA titles, and Phil Mickelson with a sixth major.

Easily overlooked is Jordan Spieth, who gets his eighth crack at trying to become the sixth player with the career Grand Slam. It hasn't been a focal point because Spieth has missed the cut in four of his last five tournaments that had a 36-hole cut.

It probably only will be a topic at Valhalla if Spieth's golf makes it one.

The pressure falls to Justin Thomas, who grew up in Louisville. It's rare for players to have a hometown major, especially when the city doesn't get a steady diet of championship golf.

McIlroy experienced some of that at Royal Portrush for the 2019 British Open in his native Northern Ireland. He had an 8 on the first hole, a 79 in the first round and missed the cut. Nicklaus had that at the 1964 PGA Championship in Columbus, Ohio. He was runner-up, but had to close with a 64 to finish three behind.

“The hardest thing I'll have is putting pressure on myself and wanting to perform well,” Thomas said. “But then again, I do a good job of that without a hometown event. Maybe two negatives will equal a positive.”

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AP golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf