Who Are These Guys?
It’s not often that professional golf collides with Rudyard Kipling, but a line from the British author came to mind as the final holes played out at The Greenbrier over the weekend. With a major championship just two weeks away, the field in West Virginia was a little diminished when it comes to star power. So when the field turned for home, it was veteran B-listers and 20-somethings jostling over the century-old layout for the win.
When the signature on the course portrait reads McDonald/Raynor, even in today’s hit-it-off-the-planet world of professional golf, players encounter detours to the finish line. Watching kids like Sebastian Munoz and Jamie Lovemark along with journeyman Robert Streb and eventual winner Xander Schauffele, the line from Kipling’s poem “If…” seemed apropos. “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you. If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you but make allowance for their doubting too… you’ll be a man, my son!”
On the PGA Tour, hoisting the trophy is professional manhood, and manhood comes early these days on that circuit.
Now that the Tour is out of the Woods, when Phil makes more news with who is carrying his bag than what he is shooting, and when 53-year-old Davis Love seems to be the best Sunday draw, the reality is this Tour is overrun with youth.
When Schauffele posted the Greenbrier win, he was the 13th winner 25 or younger this year on Tour. He was the eighth first-time winner this year on Tour. He was the latest alum of the Class of 2011 to cash the big check. While Jordan Spieth is the current alumni president, the association’s officers include multiple-winners Justin Thomas and Daniel Berger. Jon Rahm is in that class as well.
Old guys like Rory McIlroy and Jason Day are now Tour middle age and world number one, Dustin Johnson, is positively geriatric.
These new guys don’t climb the ranks. They flash a warning, and then they burst. That is certainly the case with Schauffele. Three weeks ago he was the charming unknown on the leaderboard at Erin Hills for the U.S. Open. He was unknown for a reason. This time one year ago he had a little over $32,000 in career earnings on the Web.com Tour. He played in his first PGA Tour event 10 months ago and shot 77 on Sunday. The next week he tied for fifth.
When he showed up in the flash interview area in Milwaukee, he was talking to the golf media for only the second time in his life. And by the end of that week, he was talking about being tied for fifth at the U.S. Open. When his fortunes began to turn late in 2016, he was asked about being on the fast track. He countered that impression by saying, “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.”
Last week he qualified that profile by identifying at least one Schauffele who thought he was right on pace. “My dad did. He kind of put me on some plan of his and I would say we’re trending, that’s what he would say at least. I’m just happy to play the role.” For Xander the world has changed, and he is trying desperately to hold onto the perspective that got him here. “Being a rookie, my only goal was to just make the playoffs and maintain, just stay on the PGA TOUR. So to get the three or Majors is a bonus for me. I’ll keep looking at it like that for now and hopefully that pays off.”
He is a player that fits the current metrics for success today. Long for his size (5’10), he sits 17th on Tour in driving distance, and he has shown an ability to take advantage of that length, ranking 14th in greens in regulation. His numbers on the greens are mediocre at best with two exceptions. He is apparently too young for the yips, because in 517 attempts he has yet to miss a putt from three feet or less — perfect for his PGA Tour career. At the opposite end, he ranks 127th in three-putt avoidance.
The other thing these young talents recognize is while they may be the fastest gun in town one week, there are more coming from where they have been. Schauffele got a glance at that Saturday at Erin Hills when paired with 22 year-old amateur Cameron Champ. “Man, that kid is just super long off the tee and he’s always on the fairway. I think the stats don’t say I’m the shortest guy, and I can’t even sniff where he’s hitting the ball. He’s very impressive.”
In his winning interview the newest “New Kid on the Block” was asked what advice he would give to younger players and the perspective hit him. “Oh, man, I was just a kid not too long ago.” Maybe he should tell them to read Kipling.
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.