ATLANTA – Take one big bow, high school class of 2011. The heralded, decorated ’11 class has a new addition to round out the top of its uber-talented collection.
Meet Xander Schauffele, 23, who needed a crazy late run at the BMW Championship a week ago just to advance to the FedEx Cup Playoffs finale – he played his final six holes in 6 under to jump inside the top 30. Sunday at East Lake, his closing birdie prevented Justin Thomas from sweeping all the silver, capturing the Tour Championship.
Granted, the day’s larger prize, the FedEx Cup and its $10 million winner’s bounty, was seized by Thomas, 24, yet another member of that ’11 class. He outdistanced his good pal, Jordan Spieth (yes, he’s in that class, too) to win the season-long FedEx race, capping a campaign in which he won five times, including his first major (the PGA Championship).
Draw the line in the sand. This officially is a full-on youth movement. Nineteen twentysomethings won on the PGA Tour in 2016-17, and of the top-five finishers in the FedEx race (Thomas; Spieth; Schauffele; Dustin Johnson; and Jon Rahm), only Johnson (33) is older than 24.
Schauffele was the second-youngest player in the field, behind only Rahm (22), and one of eight first-timers. He is the first rookie to win the Tour Championship. Schauffele said at the start of the week that there were several players in this week’s field – Thomas, Spieth and Rickie Fowler among them – that he had yet to even meet. At East Lake he played with Sergio Garcia, Patrick Reed, Rahm and Brooks Koepka – and he beat every one.
Informed by NBC’s Dan Hicks during the trophy presentation that he’d just won $3.5 million, Schauffele, who earned less than $193,000 on the Web.com Tour a year ago, smiled broadly and said, “My day just got a little better.”
Thomas finished in style, shooting 66, though a bid for a third consecutive birdie from 25 feet at 18 curled sharply across the front of the hole and went left. In three previous rounds, Thomas had gone birdie-eagle-birdie at 18.
Schauffele shot 2-under 68, getting up and down with a putter from the front apron of the 567-yard closing hole for birdie, his final 2 ½-foot putt – hit a tad firm – taking a victory lap around the rim of the hole before dropping in. He finished at 12-under 268, one better than Thomas.
Schauffele was playing in the Web.com Tour Finals this week a year ago (he missed earning a card by one spot in the Web’s regular season), and won for the second time this season. He also captured the Greenbrier Classic.
With two big trophies on the line at East Lake, Sunday developed into a wild, tumultuous day. At different stages, three players – 54-hole leader Paul Casey, Spieth and Thomas – sat atop the projected FedEx Cup standings. Casey started the day with a two-shot lead, turned in 3-over 38 and didn’t make his first birdie until the 18th green. He shot 73 and finished fifth, one shot behind Georgia Bulldogs Russell Henley (65) and Kevin Kisner (70).
Kisner spent a good part of his day around the lead but faltered with three bogeys over his final nine holes.
Both Schauffele and Thomas learned the game from their fathers. Schauffele’s dad, Stefan, who is half-French, half-German, was a promising decathlete whose Olympic dreams were cut short by a car accident that cost him the vision in his left eye. He became a PGA professional and has been his son’s only teacher.
Mike Thomas can say the same. He is the son of a PGA pro, has been the longtime pro at Harmony Landing in Goshen, Ky., and is a steady influence refining his son’s explosive talents. Both fathers (and moms) were there at East Lake to share in the brilliance of an unforgettable Sunday.
Spieth, who said he picked a bad time to have his worst putting week of the season, tried hard to charge, holing a lob wedge for eagle from 93 yards at the par-4 10th and nearly holing another wedge three holes later. He failed to give himself enough chances after that and shot 67.
“It just wasn’t meant to be,” Spieth said before graciously saluting Thomas, a player who began the season with one PGA Tour victory and now owns six.
“JT obviously is very deserving of winning the FedEx Cup. I almost ‘cheated’ my way to winning the FedEx Cup without winning (in the playoffs, though he had two seconds), and he really deserved it.”
Sunday broke a seven-year stretch on Tour in which the winner of the Tour Championship also doubled as the season’s FedEx Cup champion. (Schauffele finished third after starting his week seeded 26th.)
The last time two players stood together holding trophies on the 18th green (now par-3 ninth green) at East Lake? It was 2009, when Phil Mickelson won the Tour Championship and Tiger Woods won the FedEx Cup.
Schauffele will keep a busy schedule this fall, but as for setting goals for next season, he was somewhat at a loss Sunday evening.
“We’re definitely going to have to go back to the drawing board,” he said, “because we hit every goal that we ever imagined.”