WEST PALM BEACH, Fla.—There's a theme already developing for the 2016 golf season and it goes something like this: The New Big Three? Not so fast, gentlemen!
There was Rickie Fowler's early run, Hideki Matsuyama's relentless rise, Phil Mickelson's resurrection and the return of Brandt Snedeker.
Now add Adam Scott, the last place on Earth where you can still see the outline of the old Tiger Woods swing (they both worked with Butch Harmon) when Tiger was at his flawless best.
You forgot about Scott last year on account of Jordan Spieth's Grand Slam chase, which included Scott fumbling away a chance at the claret jug on the Old Course’s greens, and the exploits of Jason Day. Also on account of, Scott went through a 21-month victory drought that finally ended here Sunday when he outlasted Sergio Garcia and PGA National’s Champion Course to win the Honda Classic by a stroke.
Scott still has the best swing in golf. Sorry, Louis Oosthuizen, but you’re second by the mere of a dachshund’s hair.
After all the drum-beating and the hyperbole and the flash and awe of last year, you simply watched Scott ball-strike this place to death—except for that one three-car crash in Saturday’s third round—and were reminded, oh yeah, this guy is good. Really good. In fact, if he can putt effectively, he can give the New Big Three more than they can handle.
Scott’s win proves that it is probably time to take the “if” out of that sentence. Doomsayers, including me, thought Scott wouldn’t be able to transition back to the conventional-length putter from his long putter once the anchored putting ban took affect at the start of this year. Honestly, Scott wasn’t so sure he would be able to, either.
He handled everything he needed to handle this week at the Honda—he ranked 23rd in strokes gained putting, a hard-to-explain esoteric statistic that basically measures how well he putted versus how the other guys putt. Since there are no good stats to evaluate putting, this one is better than most. Scott was 74th on Tour in strokes gained putting before this week and there was only one putt you really needed to see.
Scott brought a two-stroke lead to the 72nd hole Sunday, a par-5 that is occasionally reachable but features a green guarded by deep bunkers short and left and by water on the right. Garcia went for the green in two, since he had no choice, and blew it into the gallery left. Scott laid up and wedged on in three. Garcia pitched on and watched his birdie putt crawl gamely up to the cup’s edge, then slowly topple in for birdie. Scott, meanwhile, saw his birdie attempt trickle two feet past.
A two-footer is a two-footer until it’s for the win. Then it turns into a man-eating beast. Especially when you’ve suffered through a couple years of spotty putting (that’s a polite way to describe short misses).
A two-footer to win the Honda? That’s just about the same length Scott had at the Old Course last summer at the 15th green in the final round. He’d already lost the British Open lead, at that moment to Marc Leishman, and when he missed the next two-footer, he dropped to three back and was finished.
Scott brushed in this putt in Sunday’s twilight as easily as knocking one in on the swinging-log hole at a miniature golf course. He made it look easy. Any golfer who has ever fought the putter—wait, that’s everyone who’s ever played golf—knows that it wasn’t easy.
“It was nice that it was just two feet, that’s for sure,” Scott said. “There was certainly a sense of relief to win again. I’m thrilled with where my game is at. To get a victory assures me that I’m working on all the right things.”
The wins also means that his putting, mainly his giving up the broomhandle model to go conventional, is a topic that fellow players, writers and fans can quit bugging him about. A skeptic might say, Well, sure he won at Honda but can he putt like that on the rollercoasters at Augusta National? Let’s look at this glass as half-full for once and say, Yes he can.
He ignored all the unsolicited advice that poured in last year from people offering suggestions on their favorite methods, strokes and putters when they knew he’d have to make a change. Most of that advice, Scott said, was fielded by his management team and never reached him. He was already secure in how he was going to putt and in fact used the conventional grip he displayed at the Honda for a few weeks last spring, including his appearance at Doral, where he putted “quite nicely” for the most part. A fellow Aussie, Brett Rumford, showed Scott the grip he uses and that’s what Scott is sticking with. “So thanks, Brett,” he said with a smile.
“There was a gentleman from Canada who was very persistent in sending me audio tapes with his secrets,” Scott said. “My dad has enjoyed listening to them. Hopefully, it’s helped him. I would like to thank him for sending those.
“Everyone was trying to genuinely help but I’ve said the whole time, I don’t think it’s going to be that big of a deal for me. It’s some hard work and I’m not afraid of that.”
Scott speaks softly and in measured tones. It makes him seem smart—well, he is smart. And his slower cadence gives the words added credibility. He says something, you believe him.
So back to this year’s theme. The New Big Three isn’t etched in stone. They aren’t on Mount Rushmore yet. They can be beaten, they have been beaten (Rory McIlroy was among those who missed the Honda cut) and they will be beaten.
Scott will turn 36 in July. He’s had a nice career, he’s won a Masters and he’s won his share of titles. He never won enough to be included in a Big Anything group but watching his flawless swing informs you that he should never be excluded, either. He’s got 12 PGA Tour victories now, including the 2013 Masters, and 35 wins worldwide. He’s no underachiever. The Honda Classic reminds us that he can achieve more, he’s not done.
“I definitely work smarter than I did 10 years ago,” Scott said. “I probably do work harder than I did 10 years ago. One of the reasons why I didn’t succeed at the biggest events 10 years ago was I didn’t work smart enough or hard enough. And there was a guy who was doing smarter and better than everybody, by far, at that point.
“I have a smaller window to achieve what I want out of this game. Once I get to 40 year old, it’s going to get harder and harder for me because there’s some 17-year-old out there right now who will be 22 then and he’ll be out here killing it and it’s going to be hard for me to keep pace.”
Meanwhile, add Scott to the list of players who have the skills, the experience and the determination to win major championships and upset golf’s current status quo.
The New Big Three? Not so fast, gents, not so fast.