Things That We Love About Golf, Case File No. 844: It gives us surprises. Terrific surprises. Seeing Justin Thomas emerge as a major winner and PGA Tour Player of the Year in 2016-17 was about as subtle as an oncoming freight train. Thomas has been winning tournaments since he wasn’t as tall as his wedge. We knew it was coming.
But Xander Schauffele, your newly minted PGA Tour Rookie of the Year? A very nice surprise.
He was just another struggling card-toting PGA Tour rookie when June arrived, a graduate of the Web.com Tour Finals hoping to find some way just to keep that PGA Tour card in his hands. Schauffele, 23, had missed seven cuts in his past 12 starts, was 132th in FedEx Cup points and sat at No. 336 in the world. (He’d slip to 352 before the U.S. Open.) Thankfully, in this game, small advances can generate big sparks.
Schauffele’s moment came in a U.S. Open Sectional playoff in Memphis, Tenn., where he went 36 holes (64-71) and then overtime to survive a five-for-two-spots playoff to advance to Erin Hills. In the first round of his first major championship, he went bogey-free in 66; trying to shake him off the leaderboard was like trying to get gum off your shoe. On Sunday, on the biggest stage he’d ever experienced, he pounded a drive down Erin Hills’ par-5 closing hole and faced 290 yards to the front edge, 311 to the hole.
“He flagged a 3-wood,” said his caddie and buddy, Austin Kaiser, Schauffele’s teammate at San Diego State. “It was the purest 3-wood I’ve ever seen.”
Schauffele two-putted for his birdie, shot 69 and tied for fifth. He was on his way. When Schauffele teed it up at Travelers the next week, he was tired physically, but mentally he was a new player. Two starts later, he won at Greenbrier. When he won again, this time the Tour Championship at East Lake, he’d risen to No. 32 in the world.
What had he taken away from the U.S. Open?
“Just to be able to be cool and calm (at Erin Hills), and kind of just not mess up, really,” he said. “I was playing really well, and usually I’ll choke or something. So to hang in there and tie for fifth, it proved to me that I could kind of hang out with the big boys.”
The added byproduct that would prove so valuable was the extra octane in his confidence.
“My dad always jokes that your confidence is a little plant, and it takes forever to grow and just a few seconds to stomp out,” he said. “So that’s kind of how it worked. That plant grew pretty fast at the U.S. Open. It almost turned into a tree, actually.”
Schauffele laughs at that thought, because he is anything but boastful. The fact that two big victories in three months have elevated him into a more prominent role in the Tour’s highly touted Class of 2011 seems to humor him more than anything. Oh, Schauffele is confident he’ll win more, but he sees a lot of daylight between him and the likes of classmates Jordan Spieth and Thomas.
“That’s weird company to be associated with,” he says. “They set the bar high, and I’m excited to chase them in the years to come.”
Schauffele, whose father, Stefan, has been his teacher since he started the game 10 years ago, considers driving and putting to be the strengths of his game. He’s long (at 5-feet-10, he ranked 16th in Tour driving distance at 306.8 yards) and hits his share of greens. Around the greens, though, he knows there is a high ceiling for improvement. With a lot of short shots, he readily admits he simply doesn’t feel very comfortable.
What if he could maintain his strengths in 2017-18 and just improve the short game marginally?
“I think some really crazy things can happen to me,” Schauffele said.
He shot a 65 Thursday in the opening round of the CIMB Classic in Kuala Lumpur, a shot behind leader Cameron Smith.
Already some crazy things are happening. Crazy good things. There aren’t many 23-year-olds even getting to the Tour Championship, let alone winning it. Schauffele left Saturday on an ambitious run through Asia – he’ll make tournament starts in Malaysia, South Korea and China, fly home to California for a week, then head to Japan for the Dunlop Phoenix.
“I know a lot of people are saying, ‘Take a break, take a break,’ ” he said, “but I’m 23, turning 24 (on Oct. 25). I’m hungry. I want to travel and play other places.”
Ah, uninhibited youth.
(Note: This column appears in the Oct. 9, 2017 issue of Golfweek.)