HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. – The kid remembers the last time Tiger Woods won a major championship.
It was the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, when the kid was 14 years old. Of course he remembers. All Woods did was sink the putt of a lifetime on the 72nd hole to force a playoff, which he won the next day. That Open was considered the most exciting major championship until, well, last weekend when the kid, still a Tiger Woods fan, nearly beat him to win the Masters.
The kid was Xander (short for Alexander) Schauffele. He is 25 and has quickly established himself on the PGA Tour. He grew up in the San Diego area, already has racked up four victories and identified himself as a player who can and likely will win a major championship.
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Xander Schauffele, who as a 14-year-old spectator witnessed Tiger Woods and his dramatic victory in the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, enjoyed an even closer vantage point for Woods’ latest victory.
That’s not hype; that’s the numbers talking. Schauffele has played eight major championships so far and finished sixth or better in four of them, including Sunday’s runner-up at Augusta National. He’s just getting started in the Land of Majors. At 5 feet 10 inches and 175 pounds, he isn’t a big, muscled side of beef like Dustin Johnson or Brooks Koepka, but he is, as they say, the real deal. He already has won a Tour Championship and a World Golf Championship.
Schauffele has created his own golfing memories so far, but he remembers watching Woods and the other pros when he “sneaked out” (his words) to watch the PGA Tour stop at Torrey Pines a few times. As for Woods’ magical putt in 2008 on the 18th green, the 14-year-old Schauffele was there, watching live, from under a big tree just left of the fairway. That tree is gone, felled in a big storm three years ago, but Schauffele’s memories are vivid.
“Everything seems bigger than real life when you’re a kid – the stands and the crowds and the people going nuts,” he said. “That’s what I remember.”
What are the odds of a kid under a tree at Torrey Pines in 2008 challenging Woods at the Masters 11 years later? It is this kind of coincidence that keeps me buying Powerball tickets.
Schauffele was a spectator again last fall when he watched Woods win the Tour Championship at East Lake.
“I get shivers thinking about that,” he said Tuesday as he prepared to play in this week’s RBC Heritage at Harbour Town Golf Links. “That marked his comeback. That situation felt bigger than life, too, the big crowd surrounding him on the 18th green. Forget golf. That was just a cool sporting event that I think they’ll show forever.
“That environment would be so hard to duplicate, but I think the Masters just did. It was cool that I was able to hang in there and be part of it.”
This was his second Masters, and he just happened to stumble into the legendary Masters of the past 30 years. It felt like a throwback event to Schauffele, what with Woods reviving the red mock turtleneck and the huge crowds swarming after him in the threesome behind Schauffele.
“That’s what I grew up watching on TV, that whole scene on the back nine,” he said. “It was tremendous for our game, no doubt.”
Woods, not Schauffele, ultimately slipped into the green jacket for a couple of reasons. “It was experience, honestly,” Schauffele said.
He misjudged the swirling wind and hit the wrong club at the par-3 16th, sending his shot to the back of the green. “I laughed with my caddie because I had no idea what the putt was doing,” he said. “I went off memory, with Tiger’s chip [in the final round of the 2005 Masters] coming all the way around, and obviously hit the putt way too hard.”
He made a good 6-footer for par. He hit the fairway at 17, then pulled the wrong club again. “Maybe I played a little too defensive,” he said, “knowing that everyone is going to come in with some birdies.”
After Woods birdied the 16th, Schauffele was two shots back and needed a birdie at the 18th for any shot at a playoff, should Woods make a mistake and ring up a bogey coming in.
At 18, a hole where he struggled with the tee shot every round, Schauffele went bunker-to-bunker and made par. “So I felt like I didn’t give anything away, you know?” he said. “I wasn’t missing 8-footers for birdies at 16, 17 and 18. I didn’t give myself those looks.”
Schauffele watched the finish on the monitor in the scoring area, not wanting to get in Woods’ way at the 18th green. He was among a group of fellow players and green-jacketed members and past champions who waited to shake Woods’ hand on the way to the clubhouse.
“It was like a dream,” Schauffele said. “It really was. It was my second Masters, and I definitely jumped into that scene a little faster than I thought I would, to be completely honest.
“Every bit of the Masters that I watched growing up was always with Tiger in it or in the hunt. He creates the atmosphere there; it’s unmatched. For him to do what he did and for me to enjoy that chase at the end was really cool.”
There is a difference between watching history and being part of it. Schauffele has been on both ends now. He played a small part in something that was extraordinary. On Tuesday, that Masters still was the hottest topic in golf.
“I think it’ll be the most popular Masters for the next 25 years,” Schauffele said.
Or until Woods wins another one, it was suggested. Schauffele smiled and nodded as he walked toward the media-center exit. That 14-year-old kid was thinking the same thing.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle