Everyone’s favorite golfing word scramble is back in the Tour Championship picture.
Xander Schauffele did not exactly become a household name when he won the season-ending event at East Lake a year ago. “I mean people still have a hard time pronouncing my last name, so that will never change,” he smiled. A clip-and-save pronunciation guide, the first name thrown in at no extra charge: It’s ZAN-der shoff-LEE.
That’s no typo atop the BMW leaderboard. That’s Schauffele grabbing the lead in the run-up playoff event to the Tour Championship, as he backed his first-round 63 with a Friday 64. His two-day score of 127 is the second lowest 36-hole score on the PGA Tour this year.
» Photos: 2017 PGA Tour Championship final round at East Lake
More important, it has boosted Schauffele’s bid to get back to the site of his crowning professional moment, to date. Only the top 30 in FedEx Cup points advance to the Tour Championship, and Schauffele stood 41st entering this last-chance tournament. By Friday afternoon, the projections were much rosier (he’d be sixth in points if the tournament ended this day).
“I’m very aware of where I stood coming into the week,” he said. “Obviously 41st isn’t what we wanted coming into the week but something good here would definitely help.”
Not that getting back to the Tour Championship was an obsession or anything. Borderline. “I sort of had that in the back of my mind all year – just wanting to give myself a chance to win again,” he said.
It was another day of going low at the Aronimink Golf Club outside Philadelphia. The scene and the time of year suited Schauffele well. “My team and I are still trying to figure out why I can’t perform that well at the beginning of the year – probably something to do with the offseason,” he said. “But for some reason this time of year something clicks, and I decide to play a little bit better.”
Playing well at the end has its rewards. Winning the Tour Championship, his second victory of 2017, highlighted young Schauffele’s rookie-of-the-year season.
But even as the tournament winner, Schauffele was the secondary story of that Sunday, as the man he beat by a stroke, Justin Thomas, claimed the $10 million FedEx Cup title/bonus. “I was so blue-eyed (young and innocent), I was just happy to win,” Schauffele said. “I didn’t really care about the ultimate prize at the end. I was just happy to prove to myself that I can clutch up under the gun. All the money and everything else that came along with it was just a result.”
Still that Tour Championship victory certainly held a great deal of personal and financial importance. The guy who won $149,000 on the Web.com Tour the year before cleared $3.5 million that week at East Lake between his tournament winnings and his FedEx Cup bonus.
Beyond that, he proved himself capable of winning big-time against big names. Tied for the Tour Championship lead coming to the 72nd hole last season, Schauffele birdied to beat Thomas by one. Granted, the winning three-foot putt took a little journey around the hole before dropping, but drop it did.
“It sort of put me on the map,” he said, “and I’m just trying to stay relevant.” While he has two runner-up finishes this season, and two top-six finishes in majors (a sixth at the U.S. Open, a second at the British), Schauffele said he hasn’t wrung out all he wanted from this follow-up to a smashing rookie debut. But there’s still time to change that.
A weekend shootout here would seem inevitable. After two rounds, six players are double-digit under par at the BMW. On Friday, 22 players shot 4-under (66) or better.
Pulling up right behind Schauffele, two back of his two-day total of 13 under were Justin Rose (11 under), Keegan Bradley, Alex Noren, Rickie Fowler and Hideki Matsuyama (all 10 under).
Falling back was first-round co-leader Tiger Woods, who finished bogey-bogey on his way to an even-par 70 on Friday. That was eight shots higher than his Thursday opening statement. He fell to 8 under for the tournament, five back of Schauffele’s lead.
“I hit it just as good (as Thursday) and putt it just as good. Nothing went in. That’s the way it goes,” Wood philosophized.