After a breakout 2017 season 24-year-old American Xander Schauffele is continuing his pursuit of golfing greatness.
It’s a sun-drenched April afternoon on South Carolina’s Hilton Head Island, and Schauffele is signing autographs for a gaggle of fans huddled by the 9th green at Harbour Town Golf Links.
After politely scribbling his name across countless hats, shirts and flags, the PGA Tour professional slips under the ropes separating him from the masses and begins making his way to the far end of the practice range. He stops twice along the way to exchange a few laughs with several of his fellow Tour professionals.
Here, removed from all the pomp and circumstance that accompanies a meteoric rise to golf stardom, is where Schauffele feels most at ease. It’s the place where the two-time winner in 2017 and subsequent Rookie of the Year can reconnect with friends and fine-tune the swing that’s earned him more than $6-million since the start of the last season.
‘We all work hard and play for those moments,’ says Schauffele, recounting the three-month period last summer when he went from virtual no-name to household name, albeit a tough one to pronounce. ‘So to accomplish what I did, and the fact it happened so quickly, was pretty surprising. It still hits me on the head sometimes and makes me remember and be grateful for how lucky I am to be out here.’
Grateful, to be sure, but old-fashioned hard work has far more to do with it than luck. So says Austin Kaiser, Schauffele’s caddie and former college teammate at San Diego State University.
‘He’s one of those silent killers, I guess,’ jokes Kaiser, who has looped for Schauffele (pronounced Shaw-fa-lay) since he joined the Web.com Tour. ‘A lot of people didn’t have him on their radar because we didn’t go to a Division One powerhouse. But when you look at his stats as a junior, he was always in the top 25 in the nation. So I’m not really surprised, just because I know he’s one of the hardest workers out here.’
That work ethic is paying dividends in the literal sense – and serving notice to his colleagues. Charley Hoffman, an 18-year veteran and four-time Tour winner, first noticed Schauffele’s dogged determination when both used short-game instructor Derek Uyeda at The Grand Del Mar Golf Club. The two San Diego natives became fast friends and began playing together whenever they were in town at the same time.
‘He’s very competitive,’ Hoffman says. ‘There’s no give-up in him and he never makes excuses – he just fights to get the ball in the hole, no matter if he’s hitting it perfect or just OK.’
According to Hoffman, Schauffele also has an insatiable desire to improve. The duo has played numerous practice rounds together over the past year, with Hoffman serving as a mentor of sorts while sharing his knowledge of courses Schauffele has yet to play. Most recently, Hoffman accompanied Schauffele around Augusta, where he was making his first appearance.
‘I just tried to give him a heads-up on the ins and outs of the golf course,’ says Hoffman. ‘Some guys are timid and scared to ask questions, but he was asking me about shots, how to play the course and what my thoughts were. Not that I have all the answers, but I have been out here a while, so I just tried to give him a little “inside information”.’
Two days later, Schauffele made the cut and eventually tied for 50th. He didn’t score as well as he’d hoped, but the experience proved beyond gratifying.
‘Playing at The Masters is one of the ultimate goals when you’re a little kid and have a club in your hand,’ Schauffele said. ‘So being there with my family and friends was special.’
Schauffele’s journey to the Tour did not come without its share of adversity. He missed automatic entry by finishing 26th on the Web.com Tour moneylist – $975 short of what was required – and had to earn his place via a T9 finish at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship.
Then, after a surprising tie for fifth in just his second start as a card-carrying Tour member, he missed the cut in seven of his next 16 events and entered the 2017 US Open at Erin Hills ranked 352nd in the Official World Golf Ranking.
And that’s when it all started to click. To everyone’s surprise, he jumped to the top of the leaderboard with a first-round 66, then stuck around and remained near the lead all weekend. He finished T5 in his first breakout performance.
‘The turning point was definitely the US Open,’ says Schauffele. ‘I couldn’t tell you why or how, but I just felt very comfortable that week. The stage was huge, but for some odd reason I wasn’t too scared of anything.
‘I think what it was, honestly, is that I had messed up so many times earlier in the year that it didn’t matter what week it was, it was now or never,’ he continues. ‘I knew if I was going to keep my Tour card, I had to do something.’
Confidence in hand, Schauffele built off his newfound momentum three weeks later at The Greenbrier Classic. Teeing off on the final hole tied for the lead with Robert Streb, the laid-back Southern Californian notched his first professional victory with a three-foot birdie putt to win by a single stroke.
In September, a mere three months removed from that maiden victory, Schauffele recaptured the magic – and the golf world’s collective attention – by rallying to win the season-ending Tour Championship in the FedExCup Playoffs with another birdie on the 18th hole. His final putt was good for a one-stroke victory over eventual FedExCup champion Justin Thomas.
‘Leading into that week, I didn’t do anything too different,’ says Schauffele.
‘I played a practice round with Jon Rahm, and he helped me with a couple different styles of shots. I used one of those shots coming down the stretch at 17, and he texted me right after the tournament because I got up and down, and we had gone over that shot in the practice round.
‘It’s just cool to be able to tee it up with him and have him help me out even though we’re competing against each other,’ Schauffele adds. ‘The camaraderie is what it’s all about.’
Schauffele’s rapid ascent has, obviously, fattened his wallet and increased his notoriety. Even so, he contends that life off the course hasn’t changed dramatically despite his success on it.
‘I still don’t spend that much more money than I used to,’ he says. ‘Golf-wise, people might recognise me a little more often, which is cool. But I’ve kept a small circle, I haven’t added anyone to my team and sort of kept the same regimen.’
A key member of that group – and the architect of the work ethic that defines him – is his father, Stefan, the first and only swing coach Xander has had since he took up the game.
‘His dad has always been his mentor and coach, and they had a game plan for the future, which is working,’ says Ryan Donovan, Schauffele’s golf coach at San Diego State University. ‘His plan in college was to play at every college event and evaluate every tournament with stats to see where he needed to improve. He put together a team to work on his putting, strength, swing and mental game, then worked harder than anyone I have ever coached.’
The elder Schauffele, a German-French former decathlete who aspired to compete for Germany at the Olympics before an auto accident left him blind in his left eye and derailed his dreams, also serves as his son’s manager and mental coach.
‘My dad’s [half] German, so discipline, focus and respect are household fundamentals we have,’ his son says.
‘The work ethic was definitely ingrained by my dad.’
Stefan’s guidance has no doubt helped Xander achieve many of his professional goals, but at times it’s also created some natural, good-natured friction between father and son.
‘It’s funny; the way my dad brought us up was to treat me and my older brother Will as equals, so I was fighting with my dad from a very young age and he was OK with it,’ Schauffele says. ‘There still had to be respect, but he tried to treat me as an equal, which was hard for me to grasp when I was younger. Now I appreciate the way he raised me.’
The literal and figurative yin to Stefan’s yang is Xander’s mother, Ping Yi. Born to Taiwanese parents but raised in Japan, she was ‘the sweet and loving one’ when Xander and his brother were growing up. ‘My mom was always the good cop because my dad had to be the bad cop,’ Schauffele quips.
Parenting styles aside, Schauffele’s success is very much a family affair. ‘I feel like, at one point or another, everyone in my family put everything aside just to give me that extra support, love and care to help me succeed. I couldn’t be more thankful for that.’
This familial selflessness, coupled with a culturally rich upbringing, provides him with a unique lens through which to view the world and his place in it. ‘Culturally, it makes me more aware,’ says Schauffele, whose parents can each speak four languages. ‘Every culture values something different, so having that diverse household – I appreciate things that maybe another kid wouldn’t.’
One of those things is good food. Schauffele’s great-grandmother was a chef in France and she passed some of that knowledge on to his father. In turn, Stefan shared his culinary affinity with his family and, along with Ping Yi, fostered an appreciation for a variety of cuisines.
‘Food was always important growing up,’ Schauffele says. ‘I don’t know if it’s a French thing, but even when we didn’t have a lot of money, my parents made sure we ate well.’
No doubt, Schauffele can afford to eat well now.
‘The hard part is that because of last year, I expect more of myself,’ he confesses. ‘Three years ago, if someone had told me, leading into the RBC Heritage, that I would have made a million bucks, I’d be like, “Heck yeah.” I’d take it. But the bar is set so high now, I think I’m behind again, I haven’t done enough.’
To inch that measuring stick upwards, one of Schauffele’s primary goals for the remainder of this season is to once again contend at a Major. He also hopes to win another tournament to further cement his position in golf’s hierarchy.
‘Obviously, when you win one, people can say it’s a fluke; when you win two, it’s not,’ he says. ‘But I need to prove to myself that I can do it again. Plus, it was a lot of fun.’
With that, Schauffele smiles, turns and resumes pounding balls down the practice range, envisioning where he’ll place shots around the course for the next four days. And imagining, if only for a moment, the rush of winning again on the PGA Tour.