SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – San Diego State head coach Ryan Donovan was glued to the television last month during the final round of the Sentry Tournament of Champions. One of his former Aztec players, Xander Schauffele, was in the middle of a scorching final-round rally, starting the day at Kapalua five shots back before tying the lead with a 9-under mark through 16 holes.
During his three-year career at San Diego State, Schauffele was always the guy who Donovan and the rest of the team could count on to make the clutch putt, or post the low round when his team needed it.
So when cameras captured Schauffele waiting to tee off on the Plantation Course’s 17th hole, Donovan could tell just by the look in Schauffele’s eyes.
“He was going to birdie 17 and 18 and win,” Donovan said. “He just has it in him, that mentality. Obviously, a lot of guys on Tour do, but he’s just something special.”
The come-from-behind victory at the Tournament of Champions was the fourth title of Schauffele’s young PGA Tour career, and it vaulted him to a career-high sixth in the Official World Golf Ranking.
At just 25 years old, Schauffele has already captured a World Golf Championships event, winning in China last fall, and a Tour Championship, which came during his two-win, rookie-of-the-year season two years ago. He’s finished in the top 6 in each of the last two U.S. Opens and last July led The Open Championship before finishing T-2.
Yet, despite his remarkable resume, Schauffele still doesn’t consider himself a star out on Tour. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
“I still feel like an underdog,” Schauffele said.
Wait, what? While it may sound strange that a top-10 player with Schauffele’s abilities would consider himself an underdog, it also is a testament to how Schauffele was raised.
Stefan Schauffele, Xander’s father and swing coach, knew that his son was physically talented and possessed a clutch ability at a young age. But Stefan, once an aspiring Olympic decathlete, felt that in order for Xander to become great, he needed to also train his mind.
It just so happened that the young Schauffele performed best when feeling that the deck was stacked against him. Often times, it was.
Full-field scores from the Waste Management Phoenix Open
Waste Management Phoenix Open: Articles, photos and videos
In junior golf, while his high-profile peers such as Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas were starring on the AJGA, the little-known Schauffele was competing in local events within driving distance of Southern California. In college, Schauffele didn’t end up at a big program but rather gravitated to mid-major Long Beach State, where he played a year before transferring to San Diego State, where he won three times and became an All-American his senior season.
Even after college, Schauffele got just two sponsor exemptions on the Web.com Tour his first year as a pro and just two PGA Tour invites that next year. But he kept his head down, got onto the Web.com Tour via Q-School and earned his PGA Tour card in one season.
And he’s done it all as the underdog.
“I like that position,” Stefan Schauffele said. “As I like to say, predators strike from the shadows. There’s intent there, for sure, and he knows that. He’s trying to own that mindset. And having proven that it’s beneficial to him and feeling comfortable out there down the stretch, he’s going to continue this until the end of time.”
Brooks Koepka made headlines last year when he stated that he wasn’t getting the attention he felt he deserved. Schauffele has similar reason to feel slighted. Except for one important thing: He doesn’t.
Last week at Torrey Pines, Schauffele earned himself a spot in one of the featured groups alongside Tiger Woods. But the night before the tournament, he caught a glimpse on television of 12 players to watch. He wasn’t among them.
Schauffele shrugged it off.
“I don’t really care because I’ve never gotten a whole lot of attention,” Schauffele said. “I’ve always been the underdog and underdogs don’t really care for attention.”
Added Stefan: “But somewhere deep inside that tells him that he still has to do something.”
Schauffele knows he’s won some marquee tournaments. But his main goal this year? Develop more consistency. It’s not enough to show up and win every now and then.
“It’s all about contending more frequently and at the right time, in big tournaments,” Schauffele said. “And I haven’t contended enough in my career.”
Tony Finau, Schauffele’s closest friend on Tour, has seen that hunger for consistency firsthand.
“Someone at that age, you have success early and you can win a golf tournament and you can be content with how good you are,” Finau said. “Hitting balls next to him, you can tell his mind’s in the right place. He wants to get better and he’s hungry to compete at a high level often. … You can’t really teach that.”
But does Finau agree that Schauffele is still an underdog?
“I know he grew up (thinking) that way his whole life,” Finau said. “… But hell no, he’s not an underdog.”
Jon Rahm, who recently bumped Schauffele back to seventh in the world rankings, was equally stunned.
“He feels like he's the underdog? Well, compared to who?” Rahm said. “I don't consider him an underdog, definitely not.”
Schauffele has undoubtedly earned the respect and attention of his peers. Performances like the one he had at Kapalua make him hard to ignore. But when it comes to himself, Schauffele will continue to be his toughest critic.
“There’s still a lot to build on,” Schaffele said.
And an underdog label to keep in tact.