There is a favorite this week that no one will deny. He is the betting favorite in most books. He is the favorite on the field as the defending champion in Royal Liverpool. And he is the golf world’s favorite, its most likable, insightful personality and the golfer so many consider their personal favorites.
It’s Rory McIlroy.
And all of that is for good reason. He is arguably playing the best golf of his career with six wins in the last two calendar years and six top-10 finishes in his last seven majors. But you know the rest. He hasn’t won one in nine years, including heartbreakingly close calls last year at St. Andrews and last month at LACC. His return to Hoylake, where he won in 2014, feels all too fitting.
And that’s why McIlroy is the one who needs a win the most this week. But it is a well covered area.
It got us thinking: Besides McIlroy, who needs a win the most this week? That’s three names.
Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay
We group these two together for the reasons we always do. Both are well-rounded players. Longtime teammates, they become America’s dominant duo in Ryder Cups, Presidents Cups and even at the PGA Tour team event in New Orleans. They are close friends and vacation together in Napa. They are, on paper, two of the five best golfers in the world. Cantlay is No. 4 on Data Golf and OWGR. Schauffele is No. 5 on DG and No. 6 in OWGR.
And they are widely considered to be the two best golfers yet to win a major.
It can be forgiven. They are both in their prime at 29 (Schauffele) and 31 (Cantlay) and are consistently playing great golf. On pure probability, both are very likely to win at least one in their careers. But the reason they’re the two most in need of wins this week is because they’ve both built reputations as the two best golfers to decline in the majors as well.
Some of it is fair. Some are not. Schauffele, for example, has a good track record of results – 11 top-10 finishes in his storied career dating back to 2017, including this season going T10, T18 and T10 so far. But that’s the whole problem with Schauffele (and Cantlay) for many. He is incredibly consistent. You can always count on him to play well. This is why he ranks so high in composite rankings. But he also went three years without a PGA Tour win from 2019-22.
It’s not like he’s choking. Not really. There’s just a fascinating disconnect between a generation of golfers who have the highest floors but rarely reach those elite heights, while other far less consistent and reliable golfers like Brooks Koepka or Collin Morikawa are hitting majors at young ages. I’m not even sure one is more impressive or important than the other, given that Schauffele and Cantlay generally make more prize money than all but two or three guys on tour.
But for Schauffele, most fans will still be thinking about him for the 2021 Masters, running at Hideki Matsuyama only to hit his tee shot on 16 in the water. Or at the 2023 US Open, enter the weekend atop the leaderboard only to splash the ball across Beverly Hills on Sunday for a T10 finish.
And then there’s Cantlay. Entering this season, he was consistently getting hammered for not appearing in the majors at all. Cantlay often responds to this criticism by pointing out that he hasn’t played in that many majors, a fair comment to some extent given that his serious back problems kept him out for years and he didn’t fully return to form until 2021. But he also went from the 2019 PGA to the 2022 Open without a top-10 finish. A narrative began, something along the lines of him being “fake good”.
He has improved this year, going T14, T9 and T14, but there was never a moment in those events where it looked like he was a contender to win.
Schauffele and Cantlay will be fine. Let’s not be dramatic. They are rightly regarded as guarantees to make the Ryder Cup team and deserve their success. But if they don’t show up this week, the golf world might be ready to really shut the door on them. No one will ever predict them to win. They will fall deep into the “Won’t Believe It Until They Win One” category.
Stay with me. Scheffler doesn’t have to win anything. But it’s sort of the reverse of the Cantlay/Schauffele situation. This is more positive. Scheffler is having one of the best seasons since prime Tiger Woods. No really. He has not finished worse than T12 at a single tournament since October. He has not finished in the top five since mid-April.
He is on a two-year-old golf course that ranks as the greatest ever. He has won two major events this season, the Players Championship and the Phoenix Open. Last season he famously won five tournaments in two months, including the Masters.
When Scheffler is on this list, it’s more about history. If he doesn’t win this week, it will feel like such a strange shame or missed opportunity to “only” come off a historic two-year run with just one major. No one in their right mind would criticize Scheffler for not winning any of the last six majors. That’s not really how golf works. But runs like that don’t last forever. While there’s no reason to believe Scheffler’s play will drop off dramatically, there’s no guarantee it will continue at this rate. Injuries happen. Downturn. Life. Look at all the great golfers of the last 15 years, names like McIlroy, Koepka and Jordan Spieth. The big runs rarely last more than three years.
Perhaps the better way to put this is that Scheffler has a chance to elevate himself to another level. To build the mythology about himself. Right now, he’s the consensus No. 1 in the world Scottie Scheffler, a 27-year-old phenom with a major. If he wins, he could begin to be discussed as a potential all-time great. Just like when Rahm won in April at Augusta, he will jump to another plane, except this will be much more like the way we discussed McIlroy and Spieth. He can take the mantle as the guy of this era.
If he doesn’t win, he’s probably still the best golfer in the world. I just hope he doesn’t miss his window.
(Illustration: Samuel Richardson / The Athletic; Photos: Sarah Stier, Richard Heathcote / Getty Images, Jan Kruger / R&A)