Editor’s Note: A version of this story appeared in the June 19, 2017 digital issue of Golfweek.
ERIN, Wis. – Xander Schauffele is making the most of every moment as a PGA Tour rookie.
It’s a mindset he learned from his dad.
Schauffele burst onto the scene this week in his first major championship start at the U.S. Open. The largely unknown 23-year-old opened in 6-under 66, followed with 73 and fired a third-round 70 to put himself in contention entering Sunday at Erin Hills. Schauffele would finish with 69 for a T-5 showing.
“I (had) nothing to lose coming out here,” said Schauffele, who earned a 2018 U.S. Open spot with that finish.
His father and swing coach Stefan knows all too well that opportunity can vanish in cruel fashion.
Stefan was an elite athlete growing up in Germany. He may have represented his country in the Olympics if circumstances were different. He was on the country’s radar for the decathlon after performing well in a regional track and field meet in long jump, javelin and the 400 meters.
But Stefan was in his early 20s when he was hit by a drunk driver in a head-on car collision. A piece of glass cut up his left eye, leaving him blind in that eye. He had six surgeries in the next two years. The time in the hospital away from intense training along with the fact he wasn’t allowed to lift weights or perform any other activity that could assert more pressure on his eye meant his Olympics dreams were dead.
“That was a dark time,” Stefan said.
The accident motivated Stefan to move to the U.S., where he would meet wife, Ping Yi, in 1988. Stefan would find golf and learned instruction at San Diego Golf Academy. When Xander got into golf around age 13, his dad would be his teacher.
Not that the process was always smooth. Stefan and Xander are both intense and blunt.
“He would tell me if I sucked to my face,” Xander said.
No doubt there was tension. In his son’s senior year of college – Xander went to San Diego State after transferring from Long Beach State following his freshman year – Stefan complained to coach Ryan Donovan that an event (the Barona Collegiate Cup) had too weak a field and would hurt Xander’s ranking. Almost in defiance, Xander won the tournament, emphasizing to Donovan afterward that he had made the right call.
Stefan also had a short-lived stint as a caddie. After Xander turned pro in 2015, Stefan toted the bag for him at the Web.com Tour’s Stonebrae Classic. On the 16th hole of the second round, Stefan plainly called his son an idiot. That was the end of that gig.
“I figured it was the wrong time to tell me that,” Xander said with a smile.
Dad may have been blunt, but Xander adopted the attitude.
Schauffele had a sterling career at San Diego State, but there was one black mark. The Aztecs were poised to gain the final spot for the 2013 NCAA Championship from the Pullman Regional, until Schauffele double bogeyed his final hole of the final round.
The put San Diego State into a final-spot playoff, where the group battled Ball State in five-count-four sudden death. On the first extra hole, Schauffele three-putted for par. The Aztecs fell to the Cardinals on that hole by one shot. The season was over.
Schauffele didn’t try to make excuses. He told teammates that, quite frankly, this result was his fault.
“He owned that,” Donovan said. “He took responsibility and threw it on himself.”
So when matters turned the other way, teammates weren’t upset.
Schauffele’s caddie is familiar to those who followed his college days. Former Aztecs teammate Austin Kaiser has been on the bag for almost all of Schauffele’s pro career and has learned on the job.
At first, Kaiser was too soft on his college companion, often sugarcoating mediocre shots. But again, that’s not the Schauffele way.
So Kaiser flipped his mindset. Let his boss know if something’s wrong or he’s doing something foolish. When the pair was in college, Schauffele wouldn’t let his friend wallow in self-pity.
If Kaiser was making excuses about his golf, Schauffele would let him have it.
Like father, like son.
Whatever the battles, Schauffele always felt a deep comfort in his father as teacher – enough so that Stefan remains his only swing coach.
Stefan was hands-off in certain ways, too. Dad wouldn’t have Xander watch swing video, because Stefan didn’t want him to see his motion critiqued on film. When Stefan dropped Xander off at junior tournaments, he wouldn’t stay to watch.
“My job was done when he walked to the first tee,” Stefan said.
He only relented when Xander was 17 and wanted Stefan to keep stats. Xander also eventually wore down his dad on seeing swing footage.
Xander would come to see his dad’s wisdom. When he would go to professionals for advice and they were telling him the same things he heard from Stefan, Xander listened to dad a lot more.
Remnants of Stefan’s past persist. For 30 years he’s put daily pressure drops on his blind eye. The point is to keep that eye alive. If eye pressure gets high, the eye nerve going to the brain would die and that side of the noggin could wither.
Xander’s parents currently run Bella, a golf bling company. But Stefan also acts as his son’s manager as well as coach. Stefan has instilled in Xander that life can be brutal. It can all be taken away in a flash.
“Xander’s fully aware how fortunate he is to have a gift that he can pursue,” Stefan said.
No kidding. Xander is a hard-working golfer, no doubt. During his senior year at San Diego State, the aspiring pro golfer took all night classes in order to give himself full days to practice.
If I’m going to be on Tour some day, this is what I have to do.
He’s now there and then some. And he’ll never forget just how much his original source, Stefan, has done.
Dad was on the grounds at Erin Hills all week watching his son continue to turn heads. Was the road bumpy at times? Sure. But Xander knows his U.S. Open experience wouldn’t be complete without dad.
“I’m thankful for him,” Xander said.