Xander Schauffele: All about the unexpected U.S. Open contender

Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports /

Xander Schauffele hasn’t had the most productive season, but through 36 holes of the U.S. Open, the PGA TOUR rookie is within striking distance of the lead.

We’ve reached the halfway point of the 117th U.S. Open, and with two rounds to go, the leaderboard represents a perfect marriage between the prominent and the obscure. With big names like Rickie Fowler, Brooks Koepka and Paul Casey in the thick of it, there are plenty of familiar faces worth keeping an eye on this weekend.

But if you’re like most fans, a quick glance at the top scores will leave you with one question: who in the world is Xander Schauffele?

Let’s start with the basic facts. A 23-year-old PGA TOUR rookie, Schauffele is a California kid with the transcript to back it up with stints at both Long Beach State and San Diego State. He turned professional in June 2015 and earned his spot on the game’s top circuit via a strong run through the Web.com Tour Finals last fall.

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But despite that display of skill, the 2016-17 season hasn’t been very kind to Schauffele. Entering this week, he’d notched just one top-10 finish and was ranked 135th in the FedExCup standings, 38 points outside of the playoff bubble.

As the world’s 352nd-ranked player, Schauffele’s locker at Erin Hills wasn’t guaranteed — he had to navigate sectional qualifying. He was one of many PGA TOUR players to enter the Memphis qualifier and while he opened with an impressive 64, an afternoon round of 71 landed him in a sudden-death playoff for two spots on Tuesday morning. He survived, punching his ticket to Erin Hills in the process.

No one could have expected what came next. Despite entering the week with a lack of momentum — he tied for 52nd at last week’s FedEx St. Jude Classic — Schauffele kicked off his U.S. Open career by shooting an electrifying round of 66, making par or better on all 18 holes. He experienced some inevitable regression on Friday, but his second round 73 was still enough to remain within striking distance of the lead as he faces the most important moving day of his career.

So what gives? How did this little-known Golden State native with a name straight out of the Star Wars universe manage to get himself into contention at the USA’s national golf championship? It begins and ends with his ball striking. On the season, Schauffele ranks 118th on the PGA TOUR in strokes gained: approach-the-green, but he’s clawed his way up to eighth in this week’s field, an incredible turnaround. He’s also hit three-quarters of the greens in regulation, a solid figure.

The result? He’s in a tie for eighth place heading into the third round.

That’s in spite of a pedestrian performance on the greens. For the week, Schauffele ranks outside of the top 50 in both strokes gained: putting and putts per green in regulation, not the most inspiring numbers. He could still regress from here — the pin placements will only get trickier as the tournament wears on — but, as a generally decent putter, he might also be due for better returns this weekend.

It’s hard to guess what this weekend at Erin Hills will have in store. The course is beginning to harden, but with more rain in the forecast, we could be dealing with an entirely different set of conditions come Sunday morning.

But no matter what happens, you’d be wise to keep an eye on Xander Schauffele. The kid has game, and in a year when Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day all missed the cut, a miracle winner would be fitting.

Next: Cameron Champ off to hot start at U.S. Open

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