With COVID-19 in his rearview mirror, Scheffler takes aim at Sanderson trophy

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Scottie Scheffler hits from the 12th tee during the first round of the BMW Championship golf tournament, Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020, at Olympia Fields Country Club in Olympia Fields, Ill. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

So my task today: Pick a winner for the PGA Tour’s $6.6 million Sanderson Farms Championship to be played Thursday through Sunday at Country Club of Jackson.

Trying to choose a single winner from among a field of 144 might best be described as a fool’s errand. Nevertheless…

Rick Cleveland

The temptation is to pick one of the nine veteran major tournament champions here this week, including 2017 Masters winner Sergio Garcia, 2016 Open champion Henrik Stenson or 2011 Open champ Louis Oosthuizen. All have won on golf’s biggest stages. All have won all over the globe. All have played well recently.

The thing is, accomplished veterans aren’t usually the story in Mississippi’s only PGA Tour tournament. Here, youth is usually served. The last six winners of the Sanderson Farms Championship have been first-time winners, including Colombia’s Sebastion Munoz last year.

If I am right, that streak will continue and 2020 PGA Tour Rookie Scottie Scheffler will get his first tour victory here this week in his first start of what is now the 2021 season. Scheffler, a 24-year-old Texan who ranks No. 30 in the world golf rankings, has done everything but win on the tour. It’s high time for him to cross that off the list.

The strongest field in the tournament’s 53-year history is here this week. The golf course is immaculate. The weather should be sublime, October in Mississippi at its finest. This is what chicken magnate Joe Sanderson must have imagined four years ago when he signed on to sponsor this tournament through 2026 and negotiated the autumn dates. The only spoiler is the one that has spoiled 2020 all around the world: the COVID-19 pandemic, which will prohibit fans from attending. If you want to watch this week’s proceedings, you must do so on The Golf Channel.

And if you do, watch for Scheffler, the tall, slender former Texas Longhorn who hits the golf ball a mile and doesn’t back down when the stakes are highest. Scheffler was playing as well as anyone in the world from mid-July into early September. He didn’t win but he was a money-making machine. He tied for 24th at The Memorial, tied for 15th at the World Golf Championships in Memphis. He was just getting warmed up.

In the year’s first major in early August – the PGA Championship – Scheffler finished tied for fourth. He was fourth again two weeks later at The Northern Trust where he shot a remarkable 59 in the second round. He shot a final found 66 to finish 20th at the BMW Championship and then shot consecutive rounds of 66, 66 and 65 over the last three rounds of The Tour Championship at East Lake in Atlanta to finish fifth all alone.

All that made him one of the betting favorites headed into the U.S. Open at Winged Foot. If you follow professional golf much at all, you know what happened next. On the Sunday before the U.S. Open, Scheffler became the first Tour player in six weeks to test positive for COVID and was forced to withdraw.

Here Wednesday, Scheffler pretty much stated the obvious. “Yeah, yeah, that absolutely stunk, catching COVID,” he said … “It definitely stunk sitting at home all week watching the U.S. Open, especially the way I was playing leading into it. I felt like I had a good chance of winning. It stunk, but it’s the world we live in. I felt OK… felt good through it all and came out on the other side recovered so all good,” he said.

Scheffler will be making his first start after a layoff of nearly a month. Clearly, he aims to pick up where he left off. Sometimes, in golf, that’s not so easy. Golf is a game of rhythm. And Scheffler was very much in rhythm before COVID struck.

“I feel my game is still in a good spot,” Scheffler said. “I think there’s still a few areas that are a little rusty just from having not played tournament golf the last three weeks. It’s a little different feeling coming into this week. I’m not as in rhythm as I usually am, but hopefully I pick back up soon, but like I said, my game feels like it’s in a good spot.

“A good finish this week would be nice. … Obviously I’m here to win and that’s the goal, but really just trying to go out in the first round and do as best I can see what I’ve got this week.”

At 30th in the world, Scheffler is the highest ranked golfer here this week. He knows the course. He finished 16th here last year. And, he is no longer a rookie. Every PGA Tour golfer has one shot at Rookie of the Year. Scheffler aced his.