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Inspired by highlights from Masters win, Charl Schwartzel a surprise contender


AUGUSTA, Ga. – There have been 209 players on the PGA Tour this season that have recorded enough rounds to qualify for the strokes gained: total statistic, the metric that compares a player’s score to the field average.

Charl Schwartzel is ranked 209th.

The 2011 Masters champion has – statistically – been the worst performer on Tour this season. In 23 rounds, he has averaged more than 2.78 strokes lost to the field per round – more than a half-stroke worse than Jonas Blixt.

“I haven’t felt like I’ve played as badly as my results, though,” Schwartzel said Friday.

And he was speaking Friday at Augusta National not because he was playing poorly again, not because he was on his way to another missed cut – but because he shot 69 in windy conditions and was an early clubhouse leader at the Masters, at 3-under 141. By day’s end, he was T-2 and three shots back, but in much better position than he can recall.

Full-field scores from the 86th Masters Tournament

Schwartzel’s recent results stand on their own; down to 172nd in the world, he is about to play on the weekend for the first time since late January. But to hear him after his second round, he didn’t sound panicked by his slump.

“I’ve been working on it the whole season,” he said.

Schwartzel said he’s worked to tighten up his swing, to make his hands more passive through the hitting area. Through two rounds he has missed only six fairways and hit at least 12 greens each day.

“I must be honest,” he said, “these are two of the best ball-striking rounds I’ve had in a very long time.”

Searching for a solution, Schwartzel took two weeks off heading into the year’s first major. He cued up old footage of his Masters victory in 2011, the year Rory McIlroy blew a four-shot lead on the final day and turned the second nine into a shootout. Schwartzel birdied the final four holes to win the Masters, his first of two Tour titles.

Re-watching the coverage, studying his old swing, Schwartzel’s confidence somehow grew.

“I could win this tournament because I was starting to hit it very good and just looked at the old footage, and it’s still there,” he said.

What stuck out the most in those clips?

“Putting on the green jacket at the end,” he said.

Whipping winds this weekend will determine whether these opening 36 holes were a fluke, or whether he’s stumbled upon a swing key. The next two days will be the ultimate stress-test for a gifted player who hasn’t won anywhere since March 2016.

For now, he’s pleased with progress, however small.

“My mind is too active,” he said, “and I really worked hard on staying in the present and trying to execute a golf shot and not worry about what can go wrong, because I’ve been playing too much golf thinking of what can go wrong.”