News & Opinion

A handful for rivals, a mouthful for others

Most golf fans wouldn’t recognize him on – or off – the golf course. It’s a good bet you couldn’t pick him out of a lineup. You likely can’t pronounce his last name, much less spell it.

But Xander Schauffele (pronounced ZAN-der SHAW-fa-lay) is going to win a major championship sooner than later. In fact, he might win his first major title before Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas or Tiger Woods win their next one. Bold statement? Yes, of course. But Schauffele is making great strides in cracking the major code at age 24 and in his second year on the PGA Tour. With his play last week at the British Open, he is one step closer.

Schauffele held the joint 54-hole lead at Carnoustie with Spieth and Kevin Kisner. And despite a bogey-bogey-double stretch on the front nine in the final round that knocked him off the leaderboard, Schauffele brought it back with two birdies on the back nine. He was squarely in it until a bogey at the 17th.

Still, despite a 3-over 74 on Sunday, he tied for second with Kisner, McIlroy and Justin Rose at 6 under, two back of champion Francesco Molinari. Schauffele finished ahead of Spieth, with whom he was paired, and Woods, both of whom led the Open at one time or another Sunday afternoon.

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American Xander Schauffele plays like the major champion that he seems destined to become.

© GOLFFILE/EOIN CLARKE
American Xander Schauffele plays like the major champion that he seems destined to become.

Schauffele posted his best finish in a major championship, but it wasn’t his only good result in a major. He tied for sixth at the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills with a Sunday 68. Last year, he tied for fifth at the U.S. Open at Erin Hills and tied for 20th at the British Open at Royal Birkdale. And he tied for second at this year’s Players Championship. All of which proves he can play the toughest courses on the biggest stages.

Schauffele has had a stealth career thus far. He was born in La Jolla, Calif., to naturalized Americans: Ping Yi, a Taiwanese mother who was raised in Japan, and Stefan, a German father with French heritage. Schauffele was the top player at San Diego State but didn’t have a particularly stellar college or amateur career.

He turned pro in 2015 and spent the following year on the Web.com Tour, where his best finishes were a couple of third-place results. He ended the regular season 26th on the Web.com money list but tied for ninth in the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship in the Web.com Tour Finals to get his privileges on the PGA Tour.

In 2017, Schauffele won the Greenbrier Classic by making birdies on two of the last three holes to win by one shot. A couple of top-20 finishes in the FedEx Cup playoffs got him into the Tour Championship, in which he shot four rounds in the 60s and beat Thomas by one.

Schauffele is the only rookie to win the Tour Championship in the FedEx Cup era. The victory vaulted him into being voted the 2016-17 Rookie of the Year on the PGA Tour.

After shooting 70-69 on the weekend at last year’s U.S. Open, Schauffele got some much-needed confidence, which gave him the impetus to play well in the biggest events.

“Last year was a springboard into my career, last year's U.S. Open,” Schauffele said after the U.S. Open in June. “This year, you always tee it up to win, and I got off to a decent start in Round 1, sort of fell apart in Round 2, and I'm happy with how I finished on the weekend, to be honest.

“It was a completely different U.S. Open if you compare the last two years. I shot 10 under last year and 6 over this year, and I [didn’t] finish too far apart in positioning in the field.”

Asked if he was surprised being at the top of the leaderboard in a major, he believed that the end of 2017 raised more eyebrows.

“You know, I think last year, winning in the fashion I did, was more surprising,” he said after the third round of the British Open, when he shot 67 to tie for the lead after 54 holes. “The wins are somewhat random. Obviously, my team and I wouldn't like to think that way, but I think the next step in my career is to get in contention more often and give myself more looks. Last year I wasn't in contention often, and when I was, I won.

“The finish I had last year, obviously, it boosted my expectations, just like it would to anyone else. Maybe I put a lot more pressure on myself, which is also fine. And I feel like I've done OK, maybe;  nothing too crazy. So just like everyone else says, the more you can put yourself into contention to win, that means you're playing good golf. Sooner or later, you're more likely to get it done.”

With his finish at the British Open, Schauffele improves to 11th in the U.S. Ryder Cup points standings. If he remains in that spot when it becomes time to choose the four wild cards after the eight automatic qualifiers, U.S. captain Jim Furyk will have some deciding to do.

And if Schauffele somehow finds his way into the Ryder Cup, under the high-intensity microscope of the world stage, millions of observers will learn who he is and maybe even how to pronounce his name.

But more importantly, it will signal that something just as big – or bigger – won’t be that far behind.

Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: golfedit@gmail.com; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf