With its gaudy $10 million payday, the FedExCup is the jewel of the four-week playoff series. But forgive me if I hold to the belief that competitions in golf are determined by strokes played, not points earned. If you need a computer to tell you who wins a golf competition, you’re on a PlayStation, not a golf course.
Justin Thomas understood exactly that when he admitted after the final round in Atlanta that, as proud as he was of winning the Cup, he was not without mixed feelings because he had failed to win the Tour Championship. “It’s odd getting something so tremendous, one of my best achievements in my career without winning a golf tournament, so it feels different but it’s still great.” The honor of winning went to 23-year-old Xander Schauffele.
His final-round 68 at East Lake left him one stroke clear of Thomas, and the first PGA Tour rookie to win the Tour Championship. Still dazed by the magnitude of the moment, he was surprised to learn that by moving up 23 spots to third in the chase for the Cup, he had added $2 million to his $1.5 million winner’s check, netting $3.5 million for the four days and eliciting the understated reaction, “Well that makes this an even better day.”
His Sunday journey was remarkable for its lack of drama beyond his putter. He parred 15 of 18 holes with the approach to within six feet at the 13th for birdie, perhaps the most outstanding full swing of the day. On the greens over the closing holes is where he separated from the field. Starting at the 11th, he converted four straight putts of six feet or greater, only one for birdie, and one-putted six of the closing eight holes.
Much has been made about Schauffele’s unknown status as the winner of the season’s finale. When plotted over the course of the Tour’s 11-month schedule, the rise from 60th in his first start in October of 2016 at Safeway to king of the hill at East Lake is phenomenal. And he showed his rookie growing pains with seven missed cuts in his first 12 starts. But to classify him as a virtual unknown bursting onto the scene in Atlanta is to ignore his summer of excellence.
An opening six-under 66 at Erin Hills, and the U.S. Open had media leafing through the player’s guide to learn how to pronounce his name. When he drifted over par in round two, he was dismissed as a one-day major wonder. Playing the weekend at the national championship and finishing T5 in your first major should not be regarded as anonymity, although the former San Diego State golfer shared the difference between stardom in social media and emerging from the pack that week.
“Yeah, Mr. Finley, my science teacher from, I think, sixth or seventh grade, maybe, texted me. He got it from a kid who is on the golf team in middle school or something like that,” he said in Wisconsin. “Yeah, he’s just really supportive and said his whole crew is following me now.”
Three weeks later at the Greenbrier, he became another actor in the drama of young talent that turned the 2017 season into a wave of winners in their 20s, and he did it with a flare. At the 161-yard 18th hole on Sunday, he hit his approach to three feet, and the birdie gave him the one-stroke win over Robert Streb at 14 under.
Despite a missed cut at the PGA Championship, he was safely in the field for the start of FedExCup, and a top 20 at Northern Trust made a walkabout in Boston not too damaging going into Chicago. In his young professional career, Schauffele has had his share of pressure rounds. He finished one slot out his Tour card for the Web.com season in 2016, but forced his way in with a top 10 at that season’s last qualifier.
He earned his way into the U.S. Open, emerging from a five-man playoff in sectional qualifying. At the BMW in Chicago, Schauffele was sitting on the outside looking in for Atlanta at plus-two with six holes to play on Sunday. He reeled off four birdies and an eagle to join the top 30 at East Lake.
Now comfortably in the conversation about the Tour’s Class of 2011, he has the 28th win by a player in their 20s for the 2017, an all-time record. For a player who has moved 335 steps in the World Golf Rankings, Schauffele stills sees himself as an underdog chasing, and he framed that sentiment after nailing down his Tour card a year ago.
“No, everything I’ve done in my life I’ve always been slower, never really won a whole lot, always was kind of like on the outside looking in, that kind of deal. So I guess the bubble boy thing does work. But don’t talk about that though. I don’t want to hear it.” With the win in Atlanta, it is likely that talk has been silenced for 2018.
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 33 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.