For Xander Schauffele, the PGA Championship hardly amounted to an existential crisis. The fifth-best player in the world, his contention at the majors has been as inevitable as day and night, and onlookers quickly chalked off a missed cut at Kiawah Island as an anomaly. But for the 27-year-old, a quiet frustration still sparked something of a reckoning.
Throughout Schauffele’s career, he had always thrived in the role of the underdog. At university, he was an unknown quantity on the “outside looking in” at Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas. In his first year on the PGA Tour, he almost lost his card before surging through the pack to become the first rookie in history to win the season-ending Tour Championship. He became known as a dark horse, biding his time in the shadows before streaking up leaderboards and into the spotlight.
It’s an approach that has brought him a wealth of success, including four PGA Tour victories all coming from behind. But at the majors, Schauffele has repeatedly fallen short and often by the finest margins. At The Masters in April, he birdied four holes in succession to pull within touching distance of a faltering Hideki Matsuyama. But on the 16th tee, as the wind and pressure swirled, Schauffele found the water and made a disastrous triple-bogey. Searching for answers to haul himself over the finish line, he started to scrutinise aspects of his mentality. The missed cut at the PGA Championship wasn’t just a source of disappointment, it was the confirmation and catalyst to make a change.
“It had been a while since I had a long weekend and I was pretty upset, not crazily but enough to not be able to assess the situation properly,” he says. “I waited a day and slept on it and then I tried to really think about why it happened and writing everything down that went wrong. It’s easy for me to sit here and say ‘I learnt from my mistakes’ but I wanted to figure out what that really means.”
In an interview ahead of The Open in 2019, Schauffele told The Independent that he’d sometimes try “to play the blue-eyed card and have zero expectations” going into big tournaments. But with a record such as his, he accepts there’s no disguising that he should be in contention come Sunday afternoon and that, while not becoming consuming, his mindset should match those expectations, too. “I think the whole underdog mentality was necessary and true. It still might be, I’m not the top dog on tour so technically I can be chasing all year long until I’m the world No 1,” he says. “But the mentality I want to change is when I’m leading a tournament or if I’m trying to go wire-to-wire. I need to get in the right frame of mind because I feel like my game is close to being in the position to do that.”
To reprogram his thought process, Schauffele began reading books on psychology, delving into the concepts of motivation, flow state, and pressure. For most people, those topics can be a swamp of neuroses, but he’s treated them with fascination, knowing anything he can glean may take him over the final hurdle.
“Growing up my dad was the only mental coach or advice I had besides some veteran golfers on the tour so I turned to books,” he says. “I don’t think anyone knows me as well as I do if that makes sense so if I can retrain certain thought processes on my own then I think it might really stick. Maybe I’m wrong and eventually I’ll get a sports psychologist but, for now, I’m taking this approach. I think a lot of it is about awareness. There are always going to be distractions on the course and I’ve been trying to find key triggers to snap myself back into the present and move forwards.”
After six finishes in the top five at the majors, does he fear that the close-calls could be leaving scar tissue that becomes a barrier? “Attitude is something that has always been a strength of mine,” he says. “I’m not thinking too much about what critics say [about my record]. I’m staying patient and in my lane, and I won’t let statistics determine how much pressure I put on myself at certain tournaments.”
To most fans and experts alike, it’s considered a matter of when. Much the same was said of Jon Rahm, who broke his duck spectacularly at the US Open last month, executing the perfect chase with two breathtaking birdie putts right at the death. And for Schauffele, the Spaniard’s subtle evolution has only provided further validation of the changes he’s trying to implement.
“If you look at what got him over the hump, I think the biggest thing he has changed is something that we can’t see which is his mental side of his game,” Schauffele says. “He doesn’t really talk about it, but it’s more noticeable on the course when you play with him, he doesn’t get as upset, he seems to be calmer and handle big moments better. Sometimes, it can feel like you’re doing all the right things but then you lose your cool for one minute and you’ve blown the tournament. He kept his cool that whole week and he even made those last putts seem pretty easy.”
There is little to suggest Schauffele’s own breakthrough won’t come at The Open. In 2018, he finished in a tie for second at Carnoustie and he has both the skill and imagination in abundance to tame the unpredictable nature of links golf, with an impressive display in Scotland last week only adding to his momentum. “I really enjoy the style of golf and if the weather is bad I think it can give me an edge too because then attitude can play such a big role and certain people might not be used to the conditions. It gives me a level of comfort for some reason and it’s just so fun. There are probably areas [of my game] where I’m not 100% comfortable yet but I’m trending towards that and feeling like I can win every week.”