Walking in Tiger Woods’ footsteps
Xander Schauffele, who was on-hand for Tiger’s 72nd-hole birdie in 2008, wants to win a U.S. Open at Torrey Pines of his own
June 13, 2021
By Ben Everill, PGATOUR.COM
- Xander Schauffele has finished in the top 6 in all four of his U.S. Open starts. (Keyur Khamar/PGA TOUR)
SAN DIEGO -- The crowd had already swelled significantly around Torrey Pines’ 18th green when a teen-aged Xander Schauffele spotted a large gum tree on the left side of the iconic finishing hole. The tree beckoned with an inviting slant to its trunk that would give Schauffele a better view of history.
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It was well before Tiger Woods arrived at the final hole on that famous U.S. Open Sunday in 2008, but the grandstands were already full and they were lined deep against the ropes along Devlin’s Billabong, the small lake that protects the front of the green.
Schauffele, then 14 years old, had to think quickly given his height. The gum tree beckoned. He’d already lost the crew he came with -- they were out straining their necks with Woods as he negotiated the back nine -- but something told Schauffele this was the place to be.
“I was backing up on the stump of the tree to get myself higher and higher. I had been waiting around the area for most of the day because I figured there could be an exciting finish and the stands were packed full, so I knew I needed to figure out an alternative spot,” he tells PGATOUR.COM.
“I found that tree because it was kind of leaning away from the hole and I could kind of get my feet and dig in and just get myself high enough to see the green. ... If there was a branch to climb or claw up and on I’m sure I would have tried.”
It proved an astute decision from the now four-time PGA TOUR winner, who will look to emulate Woods by winning his national championship in his native Southern California. Schauffele, who long struggled in his hometown TOUR stop, should have confidence this year to go along with his local knowledge. He was runner-up to Patrick Reed at Torrey Pines in this year’s Farmers Insurance Open after missing the cut in four of his first five appearances.
Schauffele, who’s seventh in this season’s FedExCup standings, has shown a knack for elevating his game at majors, especially the U.S. Open. He’s finished no worse than sixth in four U.S. Open appearances.
Thirteen years ago, Woods came to the 72nd hole needing a birdie to force a playoff with Rocco Mediate, the affable underdog.
A drive into the fairway bunker eliminated eagle from the equation on the reachable par-5. Birdie was no guarantee, either, after Woods laid up into the rough on the right side.
“As soon as you lay up in the rough at Torrey, you feel like you’re out of a hole,” Schauffele said recently. “People don’t talk about the shot out of the rough enough that set up the opportunity to putt. That’s really what changed things for him. It didn’t look like a good lie from my angle. He took a pretty good chunk of dirt out. But he got it to the green.”
As Woods walked towards the green, and eyed the 12-foot putt he needed to make, Schauffele was trying to soak it all in. He was already a regular at Torrey Pines as a student at nearby Scripps Ranch High School. Now he was witnessing history on his home course.
“It was a really cool spot in the end because I could see the whole crowd and sea of people in front of me and in the stands as well as the shot into the green and, of course, the putt,” he said.“I was almost on that angle of the putt. I was looking over the water and Tiger was putting down towards me. Maybe just over to my left, more towards the edge of the stands, but I saw the whole thing. I saw how bumpy it was. Watching it in slow-mo on TV later was kind of cool because it heightened what I had seen live with those bounces. It was almost like it was slow-motion in real life also.”
That 12-foot putt is golf folklore. It skipped and bounced on the bumpy poa annua putting surface before finding its way home. Woods won his 14th major championship the next day, needing an extra hole of sudden-death after he and Mediate tied in the 18-hole tiebreaker.
“Everyone expected him to make it,” Schauffele said with a smile. “He was still at that stage where it was too much of a Cinderella story for him to miss it. I don’t even know if I cheered because I was just in so much awe of what just happened.”
“It was a zoo. Everyone was screaming and yelling and chanting his name. Rocco had played great but you could feel the momentum swing and you could feel the energy Tiger was going to sleep with and wake up with.
“I remember staying there for a while because I thought there would be a playoff right then. I didn’t realize it would be an 18-hole playoff. But once I figured that out it was still chaos. The electricity around everyone was clear. I remember thinking there was no way he could lose after that.”
It was one of the U.S. Open’s most historic moments, and it meant even more to the up-and-coming golf star.
“My takeaway in the end was to never give up and never count yourself out because he certainly didn’t do that when he faced that tough lie and, of course, he started the week terribly,” Schauffele says. “I remember practicing and working a lot harder after that. At that age, I was kind of on the fence of making it a real serious commitment or not. Not that that moment was the clincher or anything, but I certainly remember coming out to Torrey Pines afterwards and trying to hit that putt and hit the shot out of the rough with my high school friends.
“I really wanted to be like him and have an opportunity like that.”
This week, he has that chance. The tree he leaned on 13 years ago may be gone, but keep an eye on the trunks and branches of the ones that remain. You never know who might be watching.