Xander Schauffele ready to turn from hunter to the hunted at Kapalua
5 Min Read
Written by Ben Everill @BEverillGolfbet
KAPALUA, Hawaii – Xander Schauffele has always thrived inside the underdog mentality. So if he has to invent a way to stay in it … he will.
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Schauffele’s four PGA TOUR wins have all been come-from-behind efforts as he zeroed in on a leader and hunted them down. He loves the chase. He thrives under the pressure of others thinking he can’t get something done. In fact, Schauffele will invent slights in his mind if it helps.
He still carries a chip on his shoulder from his junior days where he was often overlooked completely amongst the copious amounts of talk of the high school graduating class of 2011. It was Jordan Spieth this, Daniel Berger that, Ollie Schniederjans this, Patrick Rodgers that, Emiliano Grillo this and of course Justin Thomas that.
All six of the above mentioned stars of course rightly deserved the hype surrounding them, but Schauffele felt he could match it with all of them and used the snub to steel his focus. That bulldog like tenacity has seen him thrive on the PGA TOUR thus far with a TOUR Championship and World Golf Championship amongst his triumphs.
So how will the 26-year-old go on Sunday at the Plantation Course at Kapalua when he takes a one shot 54-hole lead over Thomas into the Sentry Tournament of Champions that he is defending? It’s unfamiliar territory. He won a year ago by shooting an incredible 11-under 62 in the final round. He was chasing. He loves the chase.
Well … he will invent something to chase of course. His father, who has been an integral part of his rise in golf, sat in the interview room and chuckled when revealing they might use “an invisible leader.” All in good fun but not far from reality.
“I'll have to have some sort of number in mind,” Schauffele said. “It'll be a fun day tomorrow, and we'll see how it goes.” Earlier in the week he continued to call himself an underdog despite his success. Not until he becomes the best in the world and a dominant performer will he agree to anything less.
Maybe making up a fake leader wouldn’t be the worst idea. The only other time Schauffele held part of the 54-hole lead was the 2018 Open Championship at Carnoustie. He bombed with a front-nine 40 before fighting back to be T2 behind winner Francesco Molinari. Now he says that experience will help him Sunday in Maui.
“That (Open Championship) sucked,” Schauffele recounted after his third-round 71 left him at 11 under in Maui.
“It was a really cool learning experience… I'm not surprised I lost it just because I was a rookie and I panicked and freaked out and did everything that I wasn't supposed to do, looking back on it now.
“It was really difficult conditions and I was playing really well and then all of a sudden I wasn't. That kind of goes to show where I was mentally and what I was capable of at the time. If I just kind of weathered the storm better and had a better mindset, it could have looked a lot different.
“But those are just things you look back on and kind of laugh just because it needs to happen in order for you to move on and learn as a player. Certain experiences will either knock you down or build you up. So try to roll with the punches and kind of learn from everything I can do, whether it's good or bad.”
Of course in Thomas he has a very tough opponent. Thomas won the event in 2017 and has 11 PGA TOUR wins plus a FedExCup on his resume already. Current U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland sits just three back and seven others are four off the pace and by no means out of the action. Would a win over one of those 2011 hot shots be extra special though?
“We just both hate losing. Pretty plain and simple,” Schauffele says of Thomas.
“He talks openly about how he hates to lose. I don't know anyone else more competitive than I am. He'd probably argue the same way. We both want it, and fortunately we're pretty good friends and we're familiar with each other, and we know each other's games, and we both have enough firepower to sort of make some moves here and there.”
Indeed Thomas’ competitive fire was also on display on Saturday. Despite a decent 69 putting him just one back, the Kentuckian was fired up as he felt he should have shot considerably lower.
“I'm not very pleased,” Thomas said.
“It’s a good score (but) I felt like I really let a really good one get away from me. Shooting 5-under on the front and shooting 1-over I feel like on what I feel like is the easier side on the back nine is pretty frustrating. But I'm in a good spot going into tomorrow, so I guess that's all I can ask at this point.”
For Woodland the opportunity for revenge was not lost. It was he who had a three-shot lead through 54 holes a year ago and he started five clear of Schauffele. But even a 5-under 68 on Sunday wasn’t enough.
“I was excited about the way I played last year, and unfortunately ran into a buzz saw there on Sunday with Xander. But hopefully we can flip that,” Woodland said.
“I'm excited about where my game is at. I'm playing well. Saw some putts go in, which is nice for me, and so hopefully go out and play well tomorrow and give myself a chance. Hopefully I can go out and post a low number and put some pressure on the guys in front.”
Funny thing is, if Woodland does just that, it will probably help Schauffele find the extra gear to win.