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Xander Schauffele shows heart at Masters, even if it’s broken

Xander Schauffele at 2021 Masters
Xander Schauffele comes ever so close yet against at Augusta National.

After stunning miscue at 16th hole opens door for Hideki Matsuyama to win green jacket, Schauffele insists, 'I'll be OK'

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Will Zalatoris had mixed emotions after signing his scorecard on Sunday at the 85th Masters, as he should. He had just placed a ribbon on the week of his life, runner-up in his very first Masters. Considering that he didn’t have a tour on which to compete at the start of 2019, it marked quite the leap for the 24-year-old. Welcome to the Big Time, Will the Thrill.

Zalatoris’ joy and frank incredulity at performing so well on golf’s grandest stage (“I’ve wanted to be here all my life,” he said) came with this 10,000-watt jolt of reality: He had just lost the Masters by a shot. One shot. Surely he would stare at the ceiling while in bed in the wee hours of Monday thinking about a wasted stroke here, a shot thrown away there, as golfers do. The pros tend quickly to forget all the eagles and birdies.

At least he wasn’t alone. Jordan Spieth posted his fifth top-3 finish at the Masters (let that marinate), and that came with a triple bogey at the ninth on Thursday, a double at the seventh on Saturday and a few other brain cramps that a player with his golf IQ usually doesn’t exhibit. It’s great to have Spieth in the mix to contend for titles once again after he got lost in the weeds in golf’s scary hinterlands, but his putting at Augusta National hardly was vintage Spieth. (He ranked 51st out of the 54 players who made the cut.) He, too, will wonder what might have been. At least he already owns a champion’s green jacket. It helps.

That leaves Xander Schauffele, who spent his Sunday in Augusta bouncing around like a pingpong lottery ball. He splurged for the full buffet. Starting his day four shots off Hideki Matsuyama’s lead, Schauffele needed a fast start and got off to a brutal one. He made a sloppy bogey after nearly driving the green at the par-4 third; made bogey at the fourth; and then doubled the par-4 fifth, a hole that he played in 5 over par for the week. Some players with less fortitude might have walked out of Augusta National’s South Gate right then and hailed an Uber ride on Berckmans Road.

Matsuyama, meanwhile, was cruising along, hitting those trademark razor-sharp irons, knocking down 2-foot birdie putts. Schauffele was becoming a speck in a rearview mirror, and easily could have signaled for his tab and checked out. When he teed off on No. 10 and strolled past the giant leaderboard off the nearby 18th green that displays the status of players making the turn, it read, with red numbers: Matsuyama 13, Schauffele 6. Schauffele needed a touchdown. (After his own bogey at 10, Zalatoris slipped five back.)

The way Schauffele responded on Augusta’s second nine should tell you all about the fight and heart that resides inside of him. He never gave in. Not an inch. Birdie from the back collar at 12 (as Matsuyama bogeyed). Birdie at 13, and 14, and 15, where Matsuyama bogeyed again. He was two shots behind, hitting first, on the tee at the par-3 16th. It is usually an innocuous hole. An atmosphere that had been flattened by one player having a huge lead had new energy. Patrons were on the edge of their green folding canvas chairs.

And then Schauffele took a mighty swing with his 8-iron, trying to hit a hard hook that could feed into that traditional left pin we see on Sundays at Augusta. Only Schauffele and his caddie had mis-read the wind, which knocked his ball out of the sky. His shot came up short, took an exit ramp left off some of the greenest grass you’ve ever seen, and plunked into the pond. Shocking. When Matsuyama’s conservative tee shot found land, it was basically game over. Somehow, Schauffele’s wild day added up to 72, one better than Matsuyama.

Here’s the thing: Schauffele didn’t feel as if he’d struck a poor shot; just the wrong shot. He’d been playing a fade most of the week, and deep inside he knows that’s the shot to play at 16, aimed at a spine in the green that feeds balls left toward the flagstick. Asked his initial thoughts stepping to that tee, Schauffele smiled and said, “Make a 1.” Instead, he made 6. Triple bogey. It was his first triple in the 1,042 holes he had played at majors. Ryan Palmer was the only other player in the field to make 6 at the 16th on Sunday.

Schauffele and his caddie, Austin Kaiser, a former college teammate at San Diego State, owned the miscalculation and the moment, and will store it away for next April. At 27, Schauffele should be making Sunday runs at Augusta National for some time, not that anyone is guaranteed anything there. Ask Greg Norman. And David Duval. And Ernie Els. And Rory McIlroy.

“It's just hard. It's hard to win out here,” said Schauffele, a four-time winner since joining the PGA Tour in late 2016. “Especially at this tournament. I think I'll throw 16 in the memory bank. I think a lot of great shots into 16 are left to right, high cuts into that mound. I've been hitting a good high cut all week. I just didn't think of it at that time. I hit, like, a hard-draw 8-iron, and it wasn't the shot. 

“I'm going to keep collecting thoughts. Hopefully, I keep coming back here for years to come, and the goal is to win one day.”

It was Schauffele’s second top-3 finish in three years at Augusta National. In 15 major-championship starts, he has seven finishes of T-6 or better. Amazing, really. He’s a big-timer waiting to swing and connect at one of golf’s big ones. You know the saying: You can’t win unless you knock on the door. These days, few rap their knuckles as hard as Schauffele.

You have to admire his attitude, his determination, his willingness to learn. He knows the margins at majors can be as thin as a blade of glass, and each experience bolsters him, strengthens him, makes him hungrier. His lowlight triple at 16 will be shown for years, but the bottom line is that Schauffele had no qualms with the swing. He hits his 8-iron 180 yards, and flushed it. Six. For all of her beauty, Augusta National can be a very cruel dame.  

“I hit a good shot,” he said. “I committed to it. It turned out bad. I'll be able to sleep tonight. I might be tossing and turning, but I'll be OK.”

Xander Schauffele is gaining. He’ll be fine.

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