ATLANTA – Call it great timing that PGA Tour rookie Xander Schauffele blistered his final six holes in 6 under to shoot 30 on the back nine last Sunday at the BMW Championship, his hot finish propelling him into the top 30 and earning him a spot in his first Tour Championship.
After all, his girlfriend, Maya Lowe, a rookie in terms of learning about golf and the PGA Tour, already had scheduled some vacation time from her job in a San Diego-area clinic, and had booked her cross-country flight to Atlanta to watch her beau in the Tour Championship. Problem was, that was about four or five months ago, when Xander was missing six cuts in eight starts and looking perilously on the bubble of even keeping his card. The Tour Championship? That had to seem like the longest of long shots, a goal her boyfriend admitted Saturday was residing “somewhere in the clouds.”
“I explained to her,” said Schauffele, flashing one of those radiant West Coast surfer smiles, “Well, honey, I’m going to do my best. If I make it there, it would be this, this and that. Fortunately, we checked off those things.”
And here he is, one of eight first-timers at East Lake, and at 23, the second youngest player in the field (next to Jon Rahm, 22, with whom he was paired on Saturday. Suddenly, Schauffele’s “this, this and that” includes rising into contention in the biggest FedEx Playoffs event of them all.
Saturday, he shot 5-under 65 to move to 10-under 200, and sits only two shots behind Englishman Paul Casey in search of his second – and biggest – PGA Tour title.
“I think he’s going to be a fantastic player,” NBC analyst Johnny Miller said Saturday of Schauffele (pronounced Show–filet [the ‘o’ is soft]). Adds Miller, “His swing is off-the-charts great.”
It’s been clear since Schauffele stepped foot on the property earlier this week that he wanted more than just to be here, though getting to the Tour Championship in one’s rookie season is in itself quite the monumental feat. He and Patrick Cantlay are the only Tour rookies to qualify.
“To make it my rookie year, it’s really special,” said Schauffele, who possesses four nationalities. His mother is from Taiwan, and his dad is half-French, half-German.
“I’ll definitely pat myself on the back for that. Personally, I think it’s kind of necessary in today’s day and age. You’ve got, what, Jon (Rahm) is 22, (Jordan) Spieth is 24, (Justin) Thomas is 24, (Daniel) Berger is 24, Hideki (Matsuyama) is 25 … I feel that everyone wants to be one of the greats in golf, and I feel that I’m behind the 8-ball right now. Even with the success, they’ve set the bar really high, and it allows me to chase them.”
Or lately, might allow them to chase him. Sunday, Schauffele will try to become the second youngest winner of the Tour Championship, behind only Jordan Spieth, who was 22 when he won in 2015.
For a guy whose season was close to being over a week ago, contending at East Lake is an awfully nice bonus.
“I’m going to keep that ‘nothing to lose’ mindset tomorrow, and see where it takes us,” he said.
Schauffele, who was competing in the Web.com Tour Finals a year ago at this time, started his rookie PGA Tour season not in top form physically. He contracted a bad flu right around the December holidays, stayed in bed for six days and lost 12 pounds before he left for Oahu and the Sony Open. In one eight-tournament stretch earlier this season, he made the cut in only two of eight starts. He wasn’t hitting the ball very well, his swing speed was down (from 119 to 112 mph), and he was depressed.
“Plus,” he said, “it was the West Coast Swing, and the ball doesn’t really go anywhere, so I felt really short and that really hit my ego. It took me six or seven weeks to get back up and compete. My confidence was in the trash, really, because I was hitting it so short. Maybe if I was more mature I could have adjusted, like a veteran would. I guess it was a good learning experience.”
By summer, though, Schauffele was flying. In 15 starts following the Texas Open in late April, he posted eight top-20 finishes (including a T-5 at the U.S. Open and T-20 at the British Open) and won his first PGA Tour title, capturing the Greenbrier Classic in West Virginia.
Schauffele, who is 5 feet 10 and weighs 165 pounds, pounds it long, ranking 16th on Tour in driving distance (306.4 yards), and has played steadily through the playoffs, his late burst at BMW carrying him across the line to East Lake. That blazing closing stretch (he shot 65-67 on the weekend) was but one more example of Schauffele being on some sort of bubble, needing to do something big, and then pulling it off.
He earned his Web.com Tour card for 2016 right on the bubble (tying for 45th and securing one of the final cards), and originally missed his PGA Tour card last fall finishing 26th on the Web.com’s regular-season standings. He then earned his card by finishing 19th in the four-event Web.com Finals.
Xander says being on the bubble raises his focus and leads to sharper play. His father, Stefan, asked what makes his son respond so well in big circumstances, answers more succinctly: “You either have heart or you don’t,” he said, “and you never know until you are there. He has heart.”
The best part of Schuffele’s rookie season is how much fun he has been having. Austin Kaiser, a former teammate at San Diego State and good friend, is on the bag as a caddie, and player and caddie often room together on the road. Kaiser admires not only Schauffele’s talent, but his work ethic, too. When early-morning workouts in the gym ended near dawn at school and team members wanted to go back to bed, it was Schauffele who’d convince Kaiser and the others to head to the golf course and get in some extra practice.
“He never really finished outside the top 15 in any event (in college), Kaiser said. “I beat him maybe one or two tournaments … and I felt like God. Beat Xander. That was my goal.”
If driving is the strength of Schauffele’s game, then his play around the greens is the area in which he can improve the most. At home at Grand Del Mar in San Diego and sometimes out on Tour, Schauffele will play rounds with U.S. Presidents Cup team member Charley Hoffman.
“He’s a good player, he’s got a future,” Hoffman says of Schauffele. “He does everything good, and he likes to compete, which is the most important thing.”
Stefan Schauffele laughs when he says his son constantly is losing money games to Hoffman, so he made sure to add a wrinkle to the competition: Whenever Xander loses, he gets to ask Hoffman a question. At the PGA at Quail Hollow, for instance, he asked Hoffman to show his son some greenside escape shots from the thick Bermuda rough, similar to what players have encountered this week at East Lake – though Schauffele, whose ballstriking has been terrific, hasn’t been in much of it.
Don’t let Schauffele mislead you about his maturity. He shows plenty of maturity as a first-year guy. At East Lake this week, he has carried himself well and been a man on his own much of the week, as, not so surprisingly, he still doesn’t know a good number of players in the field. He thinks it has been cool to draw pairings with Sergio Garcia, Patrick Reed and Rahm. Over three days, he beat all three.
“I really don’t know Jordan or Justin or Rickie or any of those guys,” shrugged Schauffele, who is ranked 66th in the world. “That’s probably another reason why it’s such a weird week for me, because I don’t really know anyone. I’m a rookie all around.”
Well, maybe not all the way. Should he win on Sunday, you can bet Jordan, Justin, Rickie and Co. will get to know his name. Last fall, one year removed from college, Schauffele made $149,000 and felt like he was the richest guy on the block back home. What if he should somehow pull off a double and win the Tour Championship ($1.5 million to the winner) AND the FedEx Cup, which offers a $10 million bonus?
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’d put it under my mattress?”