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'I always treat myself as the underdog'

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Rookie of the Year Xander Schauffele has used clutch play to rise rapidly through pro golf's ranks

    Written by Sean Martin @PGATOURSMartin

    Xander Schauffele earns Rookie of the Year award

    The reigning PGA TOUR Rookie of the Year drives a “scuffed-up” Toyota Camry, in his words, and lives in a one-bedroom apartment in San Diego.

    That modest lifestyle is testament to a rapid ascension – he hasn’t had time to spend the millions of dollars he’s earned in the past four months -- and a no-nonsense ethos that helps him play his best golf in difficult situations.

    Xander Schauffele had a record-setting rookie season on the PGA TOUR, even though in June he was just another first-year player concerned with keeping his card. After unexpectedly contending at the U.S. Open, he won both The Greenbrier Classic and TOUR Championship. His third-place finish in the FedExCup is the highest ever recorded by a rookie, and he’s just the third player since 2000 to win twice in their rookie season (Todd Hamilton, 2004; Keegan Bradley, 2011).

    Any concerns of a sophomore slump were extinguished when he finished third in his first start of the 2017-18 season, at the CIMB Classic. Schauffele, who was ranked 352nd in the world this summer, now is No. 29 as he prepares to play the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions.

    Schauffele has shown what’s possible when determination aligns with talent. His professional career has been brief – he graduated from San Diego State just two years ago – but he’s already been forced several times to summon his best stuff with his back against the wall. He has a knack for coming out on the right side of razor-thin margins. In both of last season’s wins, he birdied the 72nd hole to win by a single shot.

    “In that situation, I feel like I just focus that much more,” Schauffele, 23, said. “I always … treat myself as an underdog, and that kind of allows me to play a little bit freer.”

    Schauffele is part of the special Class of 2011 that includes two FedExCup champions, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth, as well as players like Daniel Berger and Emiliano Grillo, both of whom have won on TOUR and played in the Presidents Cup.

    Unlike those peers, Schauffele wasn’t touring the country competing on the American Junior Golf Association and he didn’t attend a name-brand golf powerhouse that competes in one of the Power Five conferences.

    “He’s got a chip on his shoulder the size of the Earth,” his putting coach, Derek Uyeda, recently told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “Xander didn’t come from money. He didn’t even have a car at this time last year because it broke down. He had to borrow his brother’s car.”

    Schauffele stands just 5-foot-10 and weighs 165 pounds, but he ranked 20th in Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee last season and 16th in driving distance (306.8 yards). Fourteen of his 18 final rounds last season were under par, including his last 10. His final-round scoring average (68.9 strokes) was his best of any round, and sixth-best on TOUR.

    It’s further proof of his ability to perform when the pressure is highest. It has come to define his emergence as a budding star.

    He had to birdie his last hole of sectional qualifying and endure a sudden-death playoff just to get in the U.S. Open, where he finished fifth. He birdied the final hole of The Greenbrier Classic for a one-shot win. And he played his final six holes of the BMW Championship in 6 under just to qualify for the TOUR Championship, which he won by a shot over Thomas.

    “From the first time I played with him, he’s just had the will to win,” said four-time PGA TOUR winner Charley Hoffman, a fellow San Diego native. “He’s not intimidated no matter who he’s playing against. He wants to beat them.”

    Those are just a few examples from his short pro career where even the slightest misstep would have sent his career off its improbable trajectory. Instead, there he was at the PGA TOUR’s season finale, sharing an awards ceremony with Thomas, the 2017 FedExCup champ, and cementing a reputation as yet another one of these under-25 wunderkinds. That German word translates to “wonder-child” in English. It’s an appropriate term for a player whose father, and only swing coach, was a German decathlete.

    Stefan Schauffele, after competing in the grueling event that requires mastery of 10 different disciplines, eventually found his way to America and to golf, and he passed along his drive and discipline to his son.

    Stefan started Xander in the game at age 9, when he was strong enough to carry his junior bag for 18 holes. Xander wasn’t allowed to use tees in those early tournaments on par-3 courses, because Stefan knew that the temporary disadvantage would pay off later.

    “(Xander) is pretty thick-skinned. His dad was pretty blunt about things. He would tell him if it was good or bad,” San Diego State head coach Ryan Donovan said about his former player, who graduated in 2015 with a degree in social sciences. “Xander just rolled up his sleeves and did what he had to do. He never made excuses.”

    Schauffele, who played one season at Long Beach State before transferring to San Diego State, rose in the collegiate rankings each year, but wasn't an All-American (third team) until his senior year. After defeating fellow PGA TOUR player Beau Hossler in the 2014 California Amateur (and losing to him in the final of the Western Amateur), Schauffele finished his senior year at San Diego State as the nation's 26th-ranked collegian.

    Schauffele took night classes his senior year to give him extra time to work on his game. He would practice in the mornings before joining the team for its afternoon sessions. His teammate, Austin Kaiser, was usually the one he’d call to join him after the team’s workouts, which usually began at 6:30 a.m.

    “I’m tired. I don’t want to go hit balls in the sun. He’d call and say, ‘I’m coming to pick you up,’” recalled Kaiser, who now serves as Schauffele’s caddie. Their relationship has succeeded because they’re not afraid to be honest with each other.

    “That’s been engraved in him forever, to be tough. He doesn’t want it to be sugar-coated,” Kaiser said.

    Donovan also instilled an underdog’s mentality into his team, a member of the Mountain West Conference that often competes against programs with bigger budgets, on-campus facilities and even private air travel. “We put the ball in their court to work at it,” he said. “We act like we’re a blue-collar team, that we have to work hard to be successful.”

    Such fearlessness has come in handy. Look at the close calls that he has survived en route to becoming one of the world’s elite players:

    -- In his first Q-School, in December 2015, he shot a final-round 70 in windy conditions at PGA National. It’s imperative to finish among the top 45, as that guarantees starts in the first eight events of the Tour season. Schauffele, after shooting a final round that was 3.6 strokes below the day’s scoring average, finished T45 … on the dot.

    -- He had a solid rookie season on the Tour, but finished the Regular Season ranked 26th on the money list, just $975 short of earning his PGA TOUR card. This would seem to ruin our narrative until you consider that …

    -- He finished ninth in the final event of the Tour Finals to earn his PGA TOUR card for 2016-17.

    -- Schauffele was 135th in the FedExCup when he arrived at Erin Hills for the U.S. Open, which he had qualified for in dramatic fashion. He birdied his last hole of the qualifier, then advanced out of a 5-for-2 playoff. His first-round 66 at Erin Hills was one shot off the lead, and he was inside the top 10 at the conclusion of each round.

    “For some reason, that week just seemed to click and I sort of realized that I can hang out here and play with the big boys and compete, and that kind of snowballed. Everything after the U.S. Open, it all happened so fast,” he said.

    -- He won his first PGA TOUR title three starts later, hitting his tee shot to 3 feet on the 161-yard, par-3 finishing hole at The Greenbrier’s Old White TPC. The birdie gave Schauffele a one-shot win.

    It was one of six times last season that a player made birdie on the 72nd hole to win by a shot. Schauffele and Bryson DeChambeau (John Deere Classic) were the only players to do it on a hole that was not a par-5. Schauffele was the only player last season to twice birdie the 72nd hole for a one-shot win.

    -- Schauffele began the final round of the BMW Championship projected to finish 35th in the FedExCup. An eagle at the drivable par-4 13th moved him to 30th in the standings. He played the next five holes in 4 under to qualify for the TOUR Championship at No. 26.

    “I’ve always lived on the bubble, it seems like,” Schauffele said of those on-the-edge results. “I fall back on the fact that I’ve pulled through. Each time I’ve been in a hot spot I’ve been able to weasel my way out of it.”

    He’s used to close calls. But he’s up to the challenge.

    Sean Martin manages PGATOUR.COM’s staff of writers as the Lead, Editorial. He covered all levels of competitive golf at Golfweek Magazine for seven years, including tournaments on four continents, before coming to the PGA TOUR in 2013. Follow Sean Martin on Twitter.

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