PITTSFORD, N.Y. – Perched against that polarizing long putter, soft-spoken and regal against a gray summer sky it was hard to make out the form of an assassin – but it was there.
Those who contend Adam Scott is too nice, too accommodating, too engaging to ever become one of the game’s truly cold competitors hasn’t been paying attention. Mr. Congeniality – he may have been the most popular man to slip an arm into the green jacket this spring since Fuzzy Zoeller – may kill you with kindness, but he still kills you.
When Scott split with Butch Harmon in late 2009 the word on the street was it was the legendary swing coach’s attempt to light a fire under an infinitely talented player with a competitive version of attention deficit disorder. Life was more important than legacies, or so conventional wisdom went, which in Scott’s defense is not an entirely foreign concept among twenty-something millionaires.
Now, some three years later, the man whose swing has been most often compared to Tiger Woods’ action has outplayed the world No. 1 in nearly every Grand Slam event since then.
Since Scott arrived at the 2011 WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship wielding that broom-handle putter, he’s posted four top-3 finishes in the majors and won the Masters. In the lifetime before that breakthrough, the Australian had one top-3 showing in 39 major starts.
In a steady drizzle on Friday at Oak Hill he picked up where he left off at last month’s Open Championship, birdieing three of his first seven holes on his way to a 68 at the PGA Championship and a share of the early lead.
Once considered something of a loss-leader in the majors – pop quiz: who was paired with Woods and Phil Mickelson for Rounds 1 and 2 at the 2008 U.S. Open (hint: he’s Australian and finished tied for 26th at Torrey Pines) – Scott has become the picture of Grand Slam resilience.
“When you’re not 100 percent ready to win majors, every week is a big week, but then I feel like you get your game to a point where you’re trying to make sure it’s ready four times a year,” said Justin Rose, who was paired with Scott for Rounds 1 and 2 at Oak Hill. “Adam has done a great job of that the last couple of years. He’s the best player, by far, in the majors.”
If that is a tad too much hyperbole for you, consider that since the 2011 Masters, the year Scott arguably emerged as a major player, he’s finished second (2012 Open Championship), first (2013 Masters) and tied for third (2013 Open Championship) when it matters.
It wasn’t just the long putter, although the impact it has had on Scott’s game is significant, or that flyer that International Presidents Cup captain Greg Norman took in 2009 that wrested Scott out of his slide into irrelevance. It was something much more profound, something more subtle that completed the transformation.
In short, Scott became harder. He lured caddie Steve Williams into his camp, a bulldog by any other name, and set about shoring up the parts of his game that had made majors such a mystery.
When he bogeyed four straight late during the final round of last year’s Open Championship to lose to Ernie Els, some considered it the status quo for a player who had never been much of a major player.
When he rebounded from that heartbreak this year at Augusta National the one part of his game that always seemed suspect, his heart, effectively became beyond reproach.
Since his major awakening, Scott has proven himself adept at contending on links courses (Royal Lytham and Muirfield), parkland tracks (Oak Hill) and everything in between (Augusta National). As a rule, solid golf tends to travel.
It is a measure of how far he has come that while he fielded questions on Friday from the top of the PGA leaderboard he had no problem revisiting a time when such a situation seemed about as likely as a player winning a major with a long putter.
“The game can be frustrating when it’s not going the way you want it and the confidence is down,” Scott said. “Six months can slip away from you and the next thing you know your confidence is gone.”
Like most objects in the rearview mirror, Scott’s previous troubles seem closer to those watching from afar. But for Scott the incremental improvements in his game and game face have been as real as the steps leading from Oak Hill’s 18th green.
He’s no longer referred to in hushed tones as just “a nice guy, but a bit of an underachiever.” The prodigy has gone punisher, buoyed by the fact that at 33 he continues to get better. That he keeps getting meaner.
“I’ve got better golf in me still,” he said.
He may not win this week’s PGA Championship, but the difference now is that he knows he can.