How a ‘Venomous’ Trash Talker Became the Best Golfer in the World

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It’s a week after he won the Masters, and Scottie Scheffler is hanging out at his local Royal Oaks Country Club in Dallas, making it abundantly clear that he can beat a bunch of middle-aged men’s asses in pickleball.

He’s with his normal crew, a group of 45-to-65-year-old insurance salesmen and finance guys in Dallas he has been playing money games with for years. They just finished a wolf hammer match on this Friday and are hanging out with adult beverages. And suddenly Scheffler, 27, is in a heated argument with two of the men, convinced he could beat them both in pickleball. Both of them against just him.

“They are going back and forth like two teenagers. And he’s digging in. This is serious to him,” says Frank Voigt, a Royal Oaks member and part of this crew. He’s known Scheffler since he was 6.

Because Scottie Scheffler wants to win. No, he really wants to win.

As Scheffler has risen to No. 1 in the world and become the undeniable dominant force in golf, a narrative has formed that he’s boring. Ho-hum. And that he doesn’t produce much personality in front of a camera.

He’ll attempt to claim the second leg of a potential grand slam this week at the PGA Championship, but it’s an open question of whether he’s a marketable enough star to cross over at a time when pro golf badly needs something to cut through two years of petty infighting. The fallout from the creation of LIV Golf in 2022 has created unprecedented wealth in the men’s professional game and splintered the PGA Tour locker room into factions divided on its next steps. There is as much conversation about what committees recognizable stars like Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy sit on as there is their chances of competing week-to-week.

But Scheffler’s little secret is that he’s not boring. He’s one of the most competitive people on the planet, a “venomous” trash-talking former basketball player who rakes in money from club members, annihilates tour pros in money games and used to run so hot his Texas coach worried it would get the best of him.

And the Sunday before he won his second Masters, he sat around with a bunch of close friends and admitted he was overwhelmed. Much the same way it had been two years before, waking up with the lead at Augusta National had proven to be one of the hardest parts — dealing with in his mind about what was to come, and what could go wrong.

“I wish I didn’t want to win as badly as I did or as badly as I do,” Scheffler told them.

The evolution of Scheffler is in the ways he’s smoothed those edges, channeling that competitive fire to become a focused, seemingly emotionless machine on the course, where he has won four of his last five tournaments. Still, the narrative is not the reality.

Texas coach John Fields was chatting with Scheffler’s caddie, Ted Scott, recently about this very thing.

“Ted, everybody thinks Scottie is this laid back guy and really relaxed,” Fields said.

“Coach,” Scott laughed. “You know that’s not true.”

The Texas Longhorns golf team was at a match play event at Texas Tech in 2015, Scheffler’s freshman year. He and match play partner Beau Hossler arrived to the par-5 11th hole and launched their drives. Hossler reached the shorter ball first and took a look down. Sure it was not his, he kept walking to the ball farther up the fairway with a little spring in his step. He thought he outdrove the soon-to-be NCAA freshman of the year by 20 yards.

Scheffler walked to the first ball, assumed Hossler correctly recognized it was not his own, and hit it. Immediately after, Hossler looked down at the remaining ball and said, “This is not my ball.” The way NCAA match play works, if you hit the wrong ball, you immediately forfeit the hole.

Scheffler exploded. He sprinted the 250 yards to the front of the green, picked up the ball, ran all the way back and, “basically throws it at Beau’s feet,” Fields said.

“It was like a volcano went off.” They bickered all the way back to the green and as they made their way to the next tee box.

“As we step off that tee box, I said, ‘Beau, we are not going a step further until you apologize to Scottie.’ He’s like, ‘Why do I need to apologize? He’s the dumbie that hit the wrong ball!’,” Fields said.

When Scottie Scheffler won his second Masters in April he celebrated in a way he seldom has during his career. (Andrew Redington / Getty Images)

Texas returned to Texas Tech for an NCAA regional later that season. By then, Scheffler was on his way to all the freshman accolades, but his game was starting to dip. He was on the back nine, and he hit a bad shot into the Texas wasteland. Scheffler was so angry he took a swipe at a bush with his left hand.

“Unfortunately, that bush was a Mesquite bush with thorns,” Fields said. “And that thorn went right in the left side of his thumb, underneath his fingernail. So you can imagine how much pain.”

But the thorn was so deep he couldn’t pull it out. Scheffler just had to keep playing. But Fields wasn’t with Scheffler’s group at the time. He had no idea of any of this, and Scheffler didn’t tell him.

Texas went on to dominate the regional and advance to the NCAA Championships. A week or so later, Fields walked around the local Byron Nelson PGA Tour event and ran into Scheffler’s dad, Scott.

“I’m really upset with you guys,” Scott said.

“OK, for what?”

“They haven’t been able to fix Scottie’s thumb!”

“What’s wrong with Scottie’s thumb?” Fields asked.

The thorn was so deep the trainer couldn’t get it out. Scheffler decided to just make sure it wasn’t infected and play the national championships with the thorn in his thumb. He’d hit a shot. Ice it. Hit a shot. Ice it. For five rounds of competition. When they later went to a surgeon in Dallas, he had to stitch it up and said if they had done it earlier, Scheffler would have been sidelined for the rest of the run.

“That, for sure, tells you how competitive he is,” Fields said. “First, how competitive he was that he got so angry he took a swipe at a bush. And second, persevering basically for 15 days of serious pain and almost having a chance to win a national championship.”

Sean Payton stared across the water, debating how to play the long par 3 at TPC Louisiana in New Orleans, as Scheffler just tore into him.

They’re playing a money game during a Wednesday pro-am before the 2022 Zurich Classic with Drew Brees, PGA Tour pro Ryan Palmer and some other business people, and Payton was hitting into the wind on the 17th hole. The 160-yard shot was playing more like 180, so the NFL coach was prepared to take a conservative angle to the right of the green, away from the water.

Scheffler wouldn’t let that happen. “Go for the pin,” Scheffler playfully heckled him with a cheese-eating grin. “Come on. Are you scared?” It’s what he did all day, needling Payton and Brees each chance he could. Payton did not take the bait on this one.

It did not matter. Scheffler still hit a 38-foot putt to win. “We had to pay,” Payton joked.

“I can tell from his demeanor and just kind of the way he approaches competition or a challenge that he’s had some pretty significant competitive background,” Brees said, “and it makes sense that a lot of that came from basketball. I can feel that confidence and that swagger with the way that he plays.”

Troubles with his putter kept Scottie Scheffler from winning for the last half of 2023, creating frustration for the Dallas native. (Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

Scheffler’s old basketball coach at Highland Park, David Piehler, recalls having to tell the then-No. 1 junior golfer in the country to stop throwing his body (Scheffler now stands 6-foot-3) in front of bigger players coming down the lane. He didn’t want to be the guy ruining Scheffler’s golf career.

This isn’t just how he is in a playful celebrity pro-am, either. It’s him all the time.

It was a Tuesday practice round before the Genesis Invitational in February, and money was on the line, so by the time their drivers left their bags Scheffler’s lips were moving. This time, Tom Kim was a target. “Be nice today, guys,” his caddie Paul Tesori said with a sigh.

While the specifics remain unclear, Scheffler quickly needled Kim about how he won money off him in their last game. But really, he gave Kim flack for just about everything he said or did.

Kim is a baby-faced 21-year-old rising star from South Korea whose mix of innocence and earnestness has attracted a large following already on tour. He moved to Dallas and was quickly taken under the wing of Scheffler and other Texas-based pros. Scheffler really does help Kim, the latter unafraid to pepper the former with questions. They’re authentically close — Kim was waiting on the 18th green when Scheffler won his second Masters last month. But Scheffler also likes to beat Kim. And he likes to remind him of it.

“Scottie will let him get some place, and then Scottie eliminates him,” says Randy Smith, Scheffler’s longtime coach. “Because Tom is such a cute kid. He’s so funny. But Scottie will kill him with facts.”

He recently brought Kim and Si Woo Kim to play Royal Oaks. They got to play the wolf hammer game with the traditional crew. Scheffler shot in the low 60s. Tom Kim shot a 74 with no birdies. “They wore his ass out,” Voigt said. Smith said Scheffler hasn’t stopped reminding him of it, reaching the point that Kim came back to Royal Oaks without Scheffler to redeem himself. “He came back here about three weeks ago and he’s like, ‘I made four birdies!’” Smith said.

“It’s kinda cute to watch Scottie with little Tom,” Voigt said. “He worships Scottie. Scottie is his big brother.”

The thing about Scheffler — the thing that makes those Royal Oaks games so informative — is he is a trash talker of the highest order. Smith called it “venomous. Absolute venom. But there’s no angst.” It’s all simultaneously nice but relentless. Vicious with a smile. He’s always been that way, often called an “ungracious winner” as a 10-year-old challenging Smith’s handful of PGA Tour clients.

At Texas, Scheffler loved to talk trash with his teammates. Most people spoken to for this story take it back to his basketball background.

“He’s a reserved golfer, but in other sports it’s pretty hilarious the amount of trash talking that goes on,” Scott said. “He should have been a basketball player. But once the competition is over, he just wants to be with his family and friends. A very normal dude.”

So here is the No. 1 player in the world, and he’s not playing with members his age at Royal Oaks, or a litany of fellow pros. No, he has his group of people he loves. “And they don’t kiss Scottie’s ass,” Colt Knost says. “They’ve known him since he was 7.”

And he annihilates them. If they’ve played 100 games, he’s maybe lost in wolf hammer five times. And while they play that, Scheffler also plays all of them individually in match play. They don’t win those. They have hemorrhaged money to their buddy for years on end. Knost, one of Smith’s former clients and now an on-course reporter for CBS, remembers seeing Scheffler, his first professional season on the Korn Ferry Tour, come play a PGA Tour event on a sponsor exemption, and he already carried a Trackman device to the driving range.

“Damn, Scottie,” Knost said. “Spending that money already?”

“Frank bought it for me,” Scheffler quipped without missing a beat.

One time, Voigt was in a good battle with Scheffler, and Voigt made what he admits was a ridiculous par on No. 16. “Scottie is just ragging on me about what a horrible putt it was, that I hit the top of the ball and it was terrible. I’m like, ‘Well, it went in.” Scheffler then had to make a 10-12 foot putt for a big pay day. He, of course, made it.

“It takes a little bit of the seriousness of everything going on and adds a little levity and lightness to it,” Smith said. “I think he enjoys the heck out of it … But he does not like to lose.”

It reached the point Randy Smith could set a timer to it. When a young Scheffler lost any sort of  contest, he’d storm away, near sprint. Then, like clockwork, he’d be back 15 minutes later, ready to challenge people to a new game.

“You’d almost have to restrain him if he lost,” Smith said.

See, Scheffler’s family moved to Dallas when he was 6, and growing up at Royal Oaks working with the great golf coach Randy Smith meant the luxury of hanging around with PGA Tour golfers such as Justin Leonard, Ryan Palmer, Colt Knost and Harrison Frazar. Scheffler wanted to be like them. He always wore pants because the pros wore pants.

He’d sit and watch Leonard for an hour or two straight without saying a word, just soaking it all in like a sponge. Knost loves to tell the story of Scheffler sitting and watching while he practiced bunker shots for 15 minutes. Knost then went to pick up the balls, and he saw a ball land next to the hole with spin. He looked over to see Scheffler and asked if it was him. “How’d you do that?” Knost asked. Scheffler said he just watched.

This 9-year-old kid would challenge them to anything and everything. Putting contests. Chipping games. Nine-hole matches. Bunker battles. And he won far more than you’d imagine. He’d beg the pros to let him play Royal Oaks from the back tees, but they told him he couldn’t hit long enough. He kept pleading, so they said fine. Could he reach any of the par 4s in two shots? No. But his game was so composed and smart he’d manage the course and played par for nine holes.

Stories of Scottie Scheffler’s inner fire predate even his 2014 arrival at Texas. (Tom Pennington / Getty Images)

Smith used to make his players do a putting drill where they’d have to make a certain number of putts in a row. First from three feet, then from six feet, then nine, 12, and 15, and they couldn’t leave until they made them all in a row. Well, one day Frazar was out there for what Knost remembers as five hours. He could not finish the drill.

Then Scheffler got out of school, showed up at the course and said, “Hey, let me try.”

Scheffler got it on his first try.

“Harrison wanted to rip his hair out,” Knost said.

But when Scheffler lost in those days he could not handle it. The thing Smith to this day credits him for, though, is how he might run hot but he doesn’t carry it with him.

“He gets rid of it so fast you wouldn’t know he lost,” Smith said. “That’s the sign of somebody who’s got it together.”

John Fields remains fascinated by the marriage between Scheffler’s different parts of his personality. Scheffler is both this hyper-competitive assassin and somebody who takes immense pride in separating golf from his life. Golf is everything to him when he’s out there. When he leaves the course, his focus is simply his home life with his wife, Meredith, or hanging with his normal, non-professional golf friends.

Fields talks with awe as he looks back on Scheffler’s finish at the 2021 match play event in Austin. This was the year before Scheffler’s breakout. He made it to the final with Billy Horschel, only to lose on the 17th hole.

The tournament had a cart waiting for the Schefflers to take them back to the clubhouse. Fields and his wife, Pearl, waited to give him their love. And 10 or so 10-year-old kids shouted for autographs and gear. Before he talked to friends and family, he spent time with the kids. He laughed and joked, giving them signatures and all the attention they’d want. You wouldn’t know he lost.

Then he hugged Fields and Pearl and talked for a moment. All still seemed fine.

“Then he got in the golf cart, and I could see he completely exploded,” Fields recalled. “The tears came to his eyes. He was so angry that he had lost, and it was borderline suffocating.”

It blew Fields’ mind. To see Scheffler lose. To see him go through the time with the kids and him and act so composed, now knowing what was actually boiling inside. Scheffler could separate them until it was time to feel it. Then he felt it, and he could move on and forget it forever.

“It’s there,” Fields said. “It’s still there. And it’s never, ever gonna leave.”

Scottie Scheffler is going for his third major championship this week at the PGA. (Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)

Scheffler is on top of golf. He’s been the best player in the world for roughly two and a half seasons. But this spring he’s reached a new level, turning more of those weekly top-5s into wins. Since the beginning of March, he’s won the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Players Championship, Masters and RBC Heritage, and finished T2 in his other event. His level of dominance is suddenly getting compared to Tiger Woods and other greats of the era. And through it all, Scheffler has seemed so normal, downplaying it at all costs.

The next step is what happens when winning becomes so routine. How do athletes of that stature keep themselves deeply motivated?

Smith thought the question misinterpreted the entire thing that makes Scheffler great.

Scheffler is not one of those golfers seeking what Smith calls “a magic bullet.” He’s never looking for the quick fix or something to solve everything and make him perfect. He doesn’t believe in it. Scheffler believes in going into each day trying to get a little bit better. It sounds so corny while explaining so much.

But he goes back to Scheffler’s putting woes in 2023. He remained the best player in golf, yet he had a ridiculous 15 top-5 finishes to three wins, all while being one of the statistical worst putters on tour. He got asked about it each week. It took a toll on him. For the first time in his career, he was being criticized.

But Smith said Scheffler always viewed it as a down-the-road, long term process. He’d try to improve one little detail on a certain day or work on a putting feel the next day. But he wasn’t going to do anything rash. Scheffler knew if he took the time to address it properly, he’d be the better player in the long run. Now, he’s putting at his best rate in two years and winning everything.

“Just trying to get a little better at this, little better at that,” Scheffler would tell Smith.”And that’s all I need.”

The future of Scottie Scheffler is this era’s superstar competing against himself. It might not be reliant on the field or a true rival. It’s all so simple. He’s going into each day trying to beat the version of himself that started the day. And if he does that forever, he’ll be tough to beat. Because Scottie Scheffler only wants to compete.

(Photo illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; photos: Andrew Redington, Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images)

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