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AUGUSTA, Ga. — It appeared as if every marshal from every corner of Augusta National had descended on the small thicket of trees that separate the 18th fairway from the back end of a concession stand.
This was the no-man’s land that Scottie Scheffler had duck-hooked his tee shot, suddenly casting a Masters he had been dominating for days on end into doubt. Maybe, just maybe, the 25-year-old Texan, presently on a two-month heater of all heaters but staring at the pressure of trying to close out his first major, was about to let things get interesting.
A lost ball on the 54th hole?
No matter how many men poked through bushes or peered around corners, no one could find it. A couple climbed up a green fence to look into a garbage area behind the stand. Another searched through a few empty boxes. Others went prone to peer at ground level.
“Seen a ball?” one marshal asked a few fans who were standing around.
They chuckled as he broke into a grimace at the situation. He was serious.
“Seen one?” he repeated.
Back on the 18th tee, Scheffler began to notice the commotion, all the people scurrying about in the woods. For once, his unflappable manner was rattled.
He had seemingly answered every bobble here with a birdie, showing the field he wasn’t going to collapse. A lost ball however would be a one-shot penalty and require Scheffler to tee off again. While he held a four-shot cushion over Cam Smith at the time, the idea of closing out with a double bogey or worse was not appealing.
“We saw the guy with the flag who always finds the ball kind of panicking,” Scheffler said. “I was like, ‘Oh crap.’ … [My heart rate] went up when I saw they couldn’t find the ball. … You hate to lose a golf ball with all those people around.”
The ball was eventually found deep under a bush. Scheffler took a penalty stroke but didn’t have to return to the tee. Instead he said his heart returned to normal functioning and he fired a three iron straight up the 18th hill to the back of the green.
A quick up and down later, he carded a bogey and the meltdown was averted. “Felt like a par,” he said.
He will head into Sunday at -9, with just Smith (-6) and Sungjae Im (-4) looking like legitimate contenders. In short, this is still his Masters to win.
“It's nice being in control of the golf tournament,” he said.
Scheffler is a fascinating character right now. Despite three years and 64 starts on the PGA Tour, he had never won an event until mid-February when he captured the Waste Management Open in Phoenix. Since then he’s won two more times on Tour and lit up Augusta National in a way no one else has.
Despite a cold and callous wind on Saturday, he posted his third round below par. Only six other golfers are in the red for the entire tournament.
Scheffler’s strength has been an ability to play with unusual poise and purpose. He seems impossible to rattle, approaches each decision with great deliberation and talks about some kind of zen that surrounds him. He even walks in at an unbothered pace, like he’s just floating around the joint.
Again, this is a guy who had never won a tournament two months ago, admits he was a “hot head” back in college and laments that he routinely lacked focus to play full rounds at a peak level.
Now he’s some steely, steady veteran?
“That is definitely something I've learned over time,” Scheffler said. “I've matured a lot since I played junior golf and college. … When I get over a shot now, I'm fully confident that I'm going to make a good swing. And that's really all I can do. The rest isn't up to me. I can't worry about the gust or where the wind is coming or how the shot is going to bounce …
“Winning golf tournaments out here is not easy,” Scheffler continued. “It's very challenging. So knowing that bad things are going to happen and being able to react to those things in a positive way is extremely important.”
If Scheffler was going to let the field back into this tournament, then a gusty back-nine was it. But when “bad things” happened, he just shrugged them away. He bogeyed 12, but answered with a birdie on 13. He bogeyed 14 and then on 15 saw a strong breeze push his ball past the hole on a birdie putt.
“Stop it, wind,” Scheffler shouted.
He posted another bogey, but didn’t allow the frustration to linger. He went on to birdie 17. And yes, he bombed that drive on 18 — “Well, obviously I didn't hit a good tee shot,” he joked — but moved on anyway. It was an up-and-down stretch of play on a course that’s known to crush even all-time greats, but he just smiled throughout.
“I had a lot of fun out there,” he said.
He did know that he was leading the Masters, didn’t he?
“Just trying to stay in my own lane.”
Scheffler was loving everything about this. He coveted having the 54-hole lead and the pressure that comes with it. It’s the kind of game-within-the-game challenge he’s always wanted to face.
He would soon go to the driving range and said he’d spend his night at a rented house here with his wife, watching "The Office."
He thought they’d get to the third episode of season four — “Angela remains unhappy about her cat.” Maybe a few more after that.
“It's by far my favorite show,” he said. “I love it.”
He hasn’t looked nervous. He doesn’t look nervous.
“I’m looking forward to tomorrow.”