GOLD COAST, Australia – Where did the spark come from to become the first Australian to win the Masters Tournament?
Perhaps it started as an 8-year-old taking his first swings on a par-3 course in Adelaide.
Maybe it percolated through formative years watching countryman Greg Norman suffer repeated Augusta heartbreaks.
Or it might spring from the disappointment of losing a four-shot lead with four to play at the 2012 British Open.
All of these things certainly added up in the evolution of Adam Scott from prodigy to Masters champion. But his ultimate triumph grew from his deepest slump.
“It’s like the politician saying it’s the recession we have to have,” Scott said. “I think those things have to happen. It might have been for me.”
The bottom wasn’t the 2009 PGA Championship at Hazeltine when Scott shot 82-79 and beat only five club professionals. It wasn’t even the four-and-a-half months he went without breaking 70.
He reached bottom in the form of an ordinary 64th-place check at the 2009 Colonial, three months before Hazeltine.
“That was the point where I actually made the cut for the first time in a few months and it was still rubbish,” Scott said. “I finally made one there and it was just rubbish anyway. I just thought I’m not doing the right stuff here. Something’s not in place and it’s not going to change just by making a cut.”
Scott’s carefully crafted career trajectory was slipping away faster than a putt on Augusta National’s greens. He was losing his grip on the promise to be one of golf’s greatest players.
In 16 months that bridged 2008 and most of 2009, Scott went from No. 3 in the world – featured in the marquee pairing with Nos. 1 and 2 Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson in the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines – to No. 65, requiring a charitable captain’s pick into the Presidents Cup from his hero and mentor Norman. His status for the next year’s Masters was unqualified.
Scott was “a statistical mess” and mired in what he bluntly admits was “the worst year of my life.”
“I was kind of out of my depth, which is what it felt like,” he said of the only slump of his career. “I was just treading water and slowly kind of drowning out there.”
Many factors contributed to his professional free fall – a broken hand that got smashed in a car door before the U.S. Open; a break-up with his longtime girlfriend, Marie Kojzar; a “mystery illness” that haunted him with recurring throat infections doctors could best attribute to fatigue; and a kneecap he dislocated running out of the surf in Queensland at the end of 2008.
It all added up to what Scott called “bad habits” that invaded his once pristine swing and eroded his confidence. He missed 10 of 15 cuts on the PGA Tour, including six in a row and three of the four majors.
Of course, it’s not how you hit rock bottom that matters – it’s how you climb out of it. Scott took the opportunity to come back better than he was before – to rethink, retool and rebuild his whole approach toward a single-minded goal of winning major championships.
“I wanted to show everyone how good a golfer I was,” Scott said.
Scott emerged as an improved version of his early self. And his journey to Masters Tournament champion is an Australian tale unlike any other.
BEFORE THE FALL
Most golfers’ full careers are less accomplished than Scott’s was by age 28 – seven PGA Tour wins including the 2004 Players Championship and 2006 Tour Championship; six more European Tour victories; and two wins in Asia for a combined 15 worldwide in nine seasons since turning pro in 2000.
He was already a member of three Presidents Cup teams and a fixture in the world’s top 10.
“I hope he breaks all my records,” Norman said after Scott won the Players at age 23. “His swing is technically better at this point than Tiger Woods at this stage. He can be doing what Tiger did, soon. He can go along and eclipse all of us.”
No pressure there.
“At the age I was and where I was at when winning the Players Championship in 2004, it all just happened kind of easily,” Scott told The Australian in 2008. “You just expect it to keep happening.”
Everybody had expected as much since he was a teenager.
Geoff Ogilvy, the 2006 U.S. Open champion from Victoria, was three years older than a 14-year-old Scott when they first met in a junior team match.
“He was actually carrying drinks at the start of the week, and by the end of the week he was one of their best players,” Ogilvy said. “There’s a big difference between 14 and 17, too, so pretty immediately he looks like he was world class.”
Michael Clayton, a former European Tour pro from Australia, first played with Scott at the Victorian Open. Clayton was a two-time champion of the event and interested to see what the young amateur had. On the opening hole, Scott snap hooked his drive into the trees and nearly whiffed en route to a double bogey.
“I remember saying, ‘I guess he’s not that good,’ ” Clayton said.
Scott then birdied the next five holes with an impressive array of shots that left the seasoned pro in awe.
“I thought, ‘How good is this guy?’ ” Clayton said. “He shot 64. You could see he was incredible. You could see he was a star. He was always going to be a great player. He was smart and could smash it and had a great swing.”
Scott played only one season at UNLV before turning pro in 2000 and quickly grew into that world-class label.
“There were a lot of really great things in my game then that I probably took for granted, which is what you do when you’re young,” he said. “When you’re young, it’s all about raw talent.”
With blue-chip sponsorships and houses from Switzerland to Dubai and Sanctuary Cove in Australia and a private Gulfstream jet to ferry him around the globe, Scott was set financially.
The young Australian was tabloid fodder with pictures of him palling on the beach with actress Kate Hudson or splashing in the surf with tennis star girlfriend Ana Ivanovic.
Life could have been worse.
Scott’s critics’ only argument was that he’s too nice for his own good.
Former coach Butch Harmon suggested as far back as 2003 that Scott needed to be meaner and tougher to develop the killer instinct that Woods had. Former Aussie great Jack Newton, runner-up at the 1980 Masters, was vocal during Scott’s slump with emphatic declarations that he lacked the “mongrel” nerve to ever win a major.
“There’s no doubting about the guy’s ability,” Newton said in April 2009, “but it seems to me that his head is not there. You could ask questions at times whether he loses his nerve. I’ve always thought he didn’t have enough mongrel in him week-in, week-out.”
Scott’s father, Phil, rejected the argument.
“Why do you have to be a mongrel to win a major?” he said. “I don’t believe it. What I believe is when you’re at peace and you have the utmost belief in yourself and confidence, you can do anything you want. For some people that will be being really hard and mongrel. And for others it will be really focused. Justin Rose is a nice guy with a slightly different streak than Adam, but you can’t say he needed to get more mongrel to win that (U.S. Open). Maybe that’s a modern era thing because we’ve seen Woods be a mongrel since the day he played pro golf and maybe people started thinking that’s what you do. But did Phil Mickelson become a mongrel to win his five? No.”
Scott accepted the criticism as a compliment regarding his potential. He believes the place to show toughness isn’t necessarily where everyone sees it between the ropes.
“I know it’s inside me,” Scott said. “That was the big thing that turned it around and put me in that position more. When you’re in that position more you can see the want and desire in me to win. You saw it at Augusta, you saw it at the Players Championship or any big tournament that you win.
“You make a big putt at the last, you’re willing that ball into the hole. You want it badly. To get into that position more to become a great player takes something. It takes that sacrifice, that mongrel that will just do what he has to do. That’s where it needed to be applied, not necessarily on the golf course.”
Even the best players can lose form and never retrieve it.
Scott fans had to look no further for an example than fellow Queenslander Ian Baker-Finch, the 1991 British Open champion. Three years later, after tinkering with his game, Baker-Finch lost all confidence as he failed to make cut after cut on the PGA Tour. Despite a 10-year exemption for his Open win, a 37-year-old Baker-Finch retired from tournament golf in 1997 after a 92 in the first round of the British Open at Troon that left him crying in the locker room.
“There’s always a fear,” said Clayton. “So many guys like (former Masters champion) Ralph Guldahl, who completely lost it. The game is littered with guys like that. But I don’t think anybody thought Adam would ever have gone that way. He was too strong and too sound and too good a player. I don’t think anybody thought he was going to go away like Finchy went away. Adam was just having a bad run.”
His father agrees, but not that it didn’t come without worry.
“I won’t say that it never crossed my mind because it honestly did,” Phil Scott said. “Was I concerned he wouldn’t come back? No. Was I concerned it was possible? Yes.”
Scott wondered himself where he was heading.
“Yeah, I was worried that the trigger wouldn’t happen and that it wouldn’t come back because I had not had to deal with that situation before,” he said.
Said brother-in-law Brad Malone: “Until that point his career had only ever gone in one direction. So there was no question it was not a good place to be in. He always thought he could get out of it, but how quickly was gonna be the test to him. In a way I feel that season of 2009 it helped him focus and ask questions of what I need to do to contend in major championships.”
The 2009 Presidents Cup at Harding Park was a turning point. Critics questioned Norman’s wisdom in picking a player who hadn’t finished better than 35th on the PGA Tour since January.
“I didn’t know what was affecting Adam but I just knew that getting him out on the golf course and giving him a shot of confidence would do him a world of good,” Norman said.
Harmon, who mutually parted ways with Scott in the midst of the slump, was particularly worried when his former prodigy got the call from captain Norman to put his struggling game on the world stage in the 2009 Presidents Cup.
“Adam is very fragile at the moment, mentally and emotionally, confidence wise,” Harmon said.
Scott, however, was inspired by the opportunity and used it as a motivator.
“I think that was smart of Greg. He threw me a bone, but he had a lot of faith in me,” Scott said. “He knew that if he gave me that pick I wouldn’t let him down. I wouldn’t just let my bad attitude continue and not practice and treat it with a grain of salt. A captain’s pick to a Presidents Cup is a big deal and an honor and shouldn’t be treated lightly. And I was given it on the back of very little form. But he knew I would take it seriously and I worked really hard to play the best I possibly could at that Presidents Cup.”
Unlike the Ryder Cup, where a weak player can be hidden on the bench, the Presidents Cup requires every player to play every day. This was the biggest jolt for Scott, who hadn’t figured that prominently since the 2008 U.S. Open with Tiger and Phil. He called it “gut-check time.”
Scott prepared aggressively, including officially working with Malone as his swing coach. This was a fresh start.
“It was a kick back up to playing world-class golf again,” he said. “For most of the year I played down the back of the field early on Saturdays and Sunday and you could hide. Your bad golf isn’t looked at. But you don’t want to play bad golf when every shot you’re going to hit that week counts toward the team.”
One teammate’s endorsement that week stuck with Scott. Angel Cabrera, the Argentine who won the Masters that April, told Norman he wanted to play with Scott. Despite losing their four-ball match, Cabrera took Scott aside and told him, “You are a great player.”
“Something I didn’t forget,” Scott said after beating Cabrera in last year’s Masters playoff, “and really nice of him.”
The week didn’t turn out well for the International team, which lost resoundingly 19.5-14.5. Scott’s match record was 1-4.
“I didn’t play my best golf that week but it wasn’t far away,” Scott said.
The faith that Norman offered him was a catalyst that paid immediate dividends. He finished third in his next start at the Singapore Open and followed it with a sixth in the Australian Masters and seventh in Dubai. Then at the New South Wales Golf Club in Sydney, he won his first professional event in his home country at the Australian Open.
“On the back of such a poor year in the states where his confidence was at the lowest he’d ever been, he managed to find form very quickly,” Malone said.
Norman handed him the trophy.
“A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step,” Norman said. “His journey of a thousand miles starting from where he was, started with a single step of winning the Australian Open. That was just a first step of getting him back. That was easy for me to sit there and say, ‘Hey, well done. This is what you wanted to get back to, now push and push and push.’ That was just a catalyst to keep him going.”
The victory pushed Scott back into the top 50 and secured his return to the Masters just before the season-ending deadline.
“It’s amazing how quickly things can turn around,” he said. “And at the time, it’s a childhood dream come true to win your national open. For me to win that and Greg was there to present the trophy, certainly it was an amazing turnaround somewhat orchestrated by him.”
When Scott debuted at the 2002 Masters and shot a Sunday 70 to finish tied for ninth, it seemed like the start of great things in majors.
However, through 2010 he only had four top 10s in 39 major starts – never seriously threatening in any of them. His best finish was a backdoor tie for third at the 2006 PGA Championship at Medinah when a final-round 67 moved him into the top-10 for the first time all week. That came a month after loitering in the top 10 for four days in the British Open at Hoylake without ever really challenging, finishing nine shots behind Woods.
“It was glaringly obvious that my results in big events didn’t match that in other events,” Scott said. “So changes had to be made.”
The first piece in turning that majors record around was getting his swing back in order after his slump. He put his full faith in Malone, and they worked on getting a more consistent higher ball flight with more spin rate conducive to firm and fast major setups.
“He’d been giving advice for a couple of months within the guidelines of what I gave him because I didn’t have enough trust in myself to make a big change,” Scott said of Malone. “I was so out of my comfort level at the time. But after the Presidents Cup I said we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do. He made me do some drastic things that felt really uncomfortable. But it got results. It wasn’t like a complete rebuild where you write off six months until you’re competitive again.”
Scott’s father, who taught him his original swing before Harmon took the baton for 10 years, liked the simplicity of the restoration.
“From the point Adam was at his worst he obviously needed some work to get it back,” his father said. “Brad was very clever to realize that it didn’t have to be new. Just had to take it back and keep it in tune. You have this great Ferrari. The leads had got on the wrong thing. Once you got it back you had to just keep it in tune. He’s got a way with Adam of making sure Adam likes the tune of his own engine. That simpleness allows for clarity.”
The next step was fixing his putting. In 2004, the first year the PGA Tour started measuring strokes gained putting, Scott ranked No. 1 ahead of Tiger Woods. But it was never really his strength. By 2008 he was outside the top 175, bottoming out in 2010 at 186th.
So he came to the WGC-Match Play in 2011 sporting a long putter at the suggestion of Malone.
“He’s never done this before and never used a long putter,” Malone reasoned. “There’s not going to be any thoughts of technique it’s just going to be instinct and using natural ability. Just let him roll a putt freely with no thought. … From the word go, because it was a completely new method, it gave him a new feeling of freedom and something to work on.”
“I worked really hard on my putting,” Scott said. “I tried a completely new method of putting, which, you know, I had five weeks to get right. I’ve never putted like that before, and I had five weeks to get it right before I brought it on tour. Some of these guys have been putting the way they putt for their whole life. So I had to make a big adjustment there.”
The adjustment went well, with Scott making his first legitimate challenge at a major at the 2011 Masters, leading down the stretch before tying for second when Charl Schwartzel birdied the last four holes.
While Scott regained his footing in 2010 with wins in Texas and Singapore, it was not enough. The majors remained a mystery to him and he was determined to silence the critics who questioned his motivation and nerve.
“For nine years, I thought I could win anywhere, and I would just fall into a major one of these years,” Scott said. “It was hard to comprehend why this was happening.”
To prepare for the majors as he entered his 30s, Scott decided to overhaul his schedule. In his first 10 seasons on tour, he averaged 26 starts worldwide per year. He decided that was about 20 percent too much.
“I just was so frustrated, it was time to do something radically different for me,” Scott said. “I think I just got stuck in a pattern. That can easily happen out here. And there’s a lot to play for every week out here. There are massive purses and a lot of prestigious tournaments to play for, but you’ve got to make some sacrifices maybe for a big reward.”
Scott played 21, 21 and 20 tournaments the last three years to earn the designation of “part-time golfer” from the media despite competing at an annual rate similar to what Woods played during his peak from 2000-07. He took six weeks off this season between Hawaii and the Florida Swing.
It also was a matter or working harder and smarter between those starts.
“Just to be disciplined to stick with my plan of practicing a lot when I’m at home, I found that quite easy to do it actually because I enjoyed it a lot more because I knew what I was working towards,” Scott said. “I wasn’t working towards just playing a lot of tournaments. I was working towards the Masters or the World Golf Championship or the U.S. Open. There was a specific time when I really wanted to peak, and the other tournaments, yes, they’re important, but they were part of the process.”
The last piece of the remake puzzle was caddie. A few weeks after his 2011 runner-up at the Masters, Scott decided to part ways with veteran caddie Tony Navarro, who had worked for years with Norman. In the process of auditioning new guys, Steve Williams became available for the U.S. Open when Woods was injured. When Woods and Williams split permanently two weeks later, Scott hired the New Zealander full time.
Williams had worked for Ray Floyd and Greg Norman before winning 13 majors with Tiger, so his expectations of what his player could achieve were quite high.
“He wanted me to win big tournaments and he couldn’t understand why I hadn’t,” Scott said. “He’d seen me play a fair bit. With him being so focused and committed to those big tournaments it was the little bit more we needed to get there.”
It’s exactly what Scott needed in his ear.
“If Steve does anything as a caddie, he makes his player feel like the best player in the world, just by the way he talks to them, by the way he carries himself,” Ogilvy said. “You can go way, way back to the early ’80s, anyone (Williams) caddied for thinks he’s the best caddie because they feel a better player, straight away from the first tee. And that’s probably one of the most important things a caddie can do.”
A win at the WGC event at Firestone followed by a seventh-place finish in the PGA the next week validated that Scott was on the right trajectory toward his major goals.
“I certainly know that Steve believed that Adam could win majors and that’s what he wanted to be a part of,” Phil Scott said. “In that year period everyone around him was of the same mind view – it could be done, it should be done, it will be done. Let’s follow this path and that’s why it’s been successful.”
With his new team and plan, Scott went from under-performing in majors to contending regularly. He finished eighth at the 2012 Masters with a confidence-inducing Sunday 66 punctuated by an ace on No. 16. He rallied with three consecutive 70s to finish 15th in the U.S. Open at Olympic.
He showed up for the British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes brimming with confidence and opened with a course-record tying 64 for his first career overnight lead in a major. He led by four strokes heading into the final round and maintained that margin through 14 holes Sunday.
Then it slowly unraveled. Scott made bogey from the bunker on 15 and three-putted for another on 16. After hearing the roar of Ernie Els’ birdie on 18, Scott pulled his approach on 17 into the rough and made another bogey to fall into a tie. He hit into a fairway bunker on 18 and he dropped into a crouch when his 8-footer for par missed and handed the claret jug to Els.
“It wasn’t one of those things where he carved it out of bounds and made 7 and suddenly the lead’s gone,” said Phil Scott, who watched the demise unfold from outside the ropes as he tried to console his daughter, Kasey. “He didn’t do a lot wrong and had these dribbling little bogeys and suddenly it’s all over. It was concerning to watch it. You could understand it in golf because it’s so easy to make bogeys.”
Scott seemed in shock as he stoically but gracefully handled his interview obligations and swore he would take the positives away from his disappointment.
Norman told him as much that night in a phone call.
“I said when you think about it you led this British Open for 70 holes,” Norman said. “Take the positive out of the 70 and not the negative out of the two. When you break it down into simplistic terms, you outplayed everybody. So take it, use it and move on with it. Other guys have done the same thing. Jack Nicklaus has done it, Arnold Palmer’s done it, I’ve done it, Woods has done it. Every player that plays stumbles sometimes. It’s part of the game.”
When it was time to leave, his father changed plans and flew home with his son to Switzerland for support.
“That was very much a non-golf, parental move,” his father said. “I didn’t want him to go to bed on his own and we had some great chats. I thought by Wednesday he was sorted. I didn’t really think Adam would go sit in the corner and cry and that was the end of his career. Because it’s just not how he is. It’s more how badly will this affect him for a little while. Is he going to be down on himself or angry. And he just got it all out quick.”
Said Scott: “It was great that he was there. It probably would have been worse going by myself. We didn’t even talk it out that much. We didn’t have much to analyze. Just the last four holes.”
Scott insisted he was encouraged more than discouraged, but few were convinced.
“Trust me, I was really disappointed,” Scott said. “But I still think that’s the best 68 holes of golf I think I will ever play. It was superb. The ball striking was out of this world good. Everything else was good. And I played conservative on the last day and made a couple of mistakes at the end. I took so much good stuff out of being able to play like that finally at the biggest stage in the world after trying for 12 years that I didn’t want to let the result put me off track. It was gutting not to walk away with the claret jug, absolutely, but I meant what I said.”
Instead of emotional scarring, Scott came to the Masters the next spring convinced that he was ready to kick the door in on his major roadblock. Augusta National seemed the perfect place for him.
“Stuff had started happening for me at Augusta … so when I went there (in 2013) I felt like I’d done everything possible, especially in the four months of the new year,” he said. “I’ve got everything where I want it to be. I’ve done all the work. Now I just have to go and do it.”
So when opportunity knocked again with four holes to play Sunday, Scott was ready to handle it better then he did in 2011 when Schwartzel caught him at Augusta or in 2012 when he let it go at Royal Lytham.
“From my experience in being close at majors, you’ve got to go and win it,” he said. “They’re not going to be handed to you. The Schwartzel thing, what can you do? It’s the best finish ever in a major. But that’s what you’ve got to do to win a major. You’ve got to show that you want it. That’s what I did.”
Trailing fellow Aussie Jason Day by two as he played No. 15 in a steady rain, Scott knocked it to 20 feet and two-putted for birdie coinciding with Day’s bogey at 16.
“That’s when it starts becoming gut-check time,” he said. “I’d played the whole day cruising and not thinking about winning whatsoever. I didn’t think about winning at that moment but I just knew that if you want a chance you have to hit a great shot into 15 there. Against Schwartzel I didn’t and it was ultimately pretty costly. I stood over that 4-iron at 15 and thought just put the best shot you can on this thing and show them how much you want to get in there.”
An even bigger shot came in the playoff with his 6-iron approach into 10 that set up the winning putt.
“Instinct would have been to play the shorter club and swing pretty hard with his draw,” Malone said. “But the ideal shot was a 6-iron held. That shot for him would have been out of the question in the past. For him to hit that shot was a huge moment. Under that pressure you’ve got one chance and you know Cabrera is on the green. To pull that off was an awesome shot.”
ADDING IT ALL UP
Everything Scott was working on for three years was validated in those final holes and the playoff.
“In the playoff, all the hard work really came off then,” Malone said. “The things he’s really worked on over the years came together.”
The smooth swing he’d worked on with Malone held up under pressure with clutch drives and approaches.
The focus that produced the best cumulative performance in majors for two consecutive seasons.
The long putter that delivered the dramatic birdies on the 72nd hole and playoff.
And the experienced caddie who gave Scott the perfect read he needed to end it as rain and darkness fell on the second playoff hole.
“For a while the process wasn’t about results, it was about just doing the work and the results would come,” Scott said. “Now the results are coming, we’re going to keep doing that same thing and see how far I can take it.”
Scott has come a long way from his rock bottom in a short time. He’s No. 2 in the world and eager to see what the future holds.
“While the modern era has produced guys winning young, what seems to be the case is guys still produce their best golf in their 30s,” said his father. “In the old days you had this mentality that you had to dig around for 10 years and earn your stripes. Adam came along in his 20s and made a lot of money and Sergio (Garcia) was awesome and Justin (Rose) was awesome. Now here we are a decade later and they really are better players. I think we’re probably going to see his best five or six years now. He’ll certainly give it his best shot.”
Scott believes it.
“Well, I’ve spoken quite openly that I think my time to achieve is now, so I need to make the most of it,” he said. “If I’m to achieve what I dreamt of as a kid I’ve got a lot of work to do still. I need to get busy and I need to keep winning majors and winning tournaments and keep working this process or this plan that I’ve got in place to do that.
“As long as I keep the intensity and practice and preparation, I think I can win more majors, win another Masters, win the Open, hopefully U.S. Opens and PGAs. I’d love to win the career Grand Slam or the career slam, whatever they call it, and put myself in that really small group of players who have won all four majors. I think that would be a good goal, but that’s a long way off at the moment. I’ve only got one, so there’s a lot of work to do.”