Last year’s PGA Tour Rookie of the Year, Xander Schauffele (ZAN-der SHAW-fa-lay), attracted my attention in Thursday’s first round in the Waste Management Phoenix Open. First of all, I was reminded that he won the 2017 PGA Tour Championship (first rookie to ever do that) and the Greenbrier Classic. But the clincher was that he was paired with Phil Mickelson and Jon Rahm, two super stars and big men, and Xander is neither, fresh off his rookie year and just 5′ 10″ and 165 pounds.
How would he fare in that pairing and the fever pitch that the WMPO can frequently be?
They went off the back nine very early in the morning so I didn’t pick them up until they were on the par-5 3rd hole. And I was surprised that all three drives were nestled in the middle of the fairway with Rahm having a 10-yard edge. They all hit irons into the green with Phil missing it just off the right edge. Xander went to 5-under with his fifth birdie.
On the 5th hole he hit it left and unplayable in a prickley pear cactus; scrambling double-bogey and kept it together to the finish. That left him 1-down to Rahm and 2-up on Phil. They were paired together on Friday: 1-up on Rahm and 2-down to Phil on the day. That left them paired together the third time in today’s third round: with the noose tightening, Rahm was T2 at 13-under and Phil and Xander were T5 and 12-under. That is hanging tight in the face of two big guys and the raucous fans at 16.
Q. 5-under par today, excellent group you played with as well of the talk about how much fun that was out there.
XANDER SCHAUFFELE: Yeah, I feel like I’m getting the full experience playing with Phil and Jon especially when — all of us are playing well and the fans have just been awesome.
Q. When you play in that kind of group how much are you guys feeding off each other because it just seems like down that stretch it’s one great shot after another great shot. Did you find that with each one that pumped you up to up your game that much more?
XANDER SCHAUFFELE: Yeah, absolutely. Some of the birdies seemed rather effortless at times, as a group we were all three of us birdieing the same hole a few times on the back nine. And it just helps when fans are going nuts and Jon or Phil put one down the fairway you kind of just follow suit and that helps a lot. [This is called feeling like you belong.]
Q. Going into tomorrow, what’s the challenge like playing a course where you know there’s a lot of low scores out there potentially and still a crowded leaderboard?
XANDER SCHAUFFELE: Yeah, probably try and keep my head down early, not much you can do on the front nine, but I’m sure the fans and the leaderboards and everything will be telling you what you’re doing good or bad.
Q. Those guys sitting up front at 16 [the par-3 gonzo coliseum] kind of love giving everyone a hard time:
XANDER SCHAUFFELE: I think it’s funny. I said earlier, if you don’t like that sort of stuff, don’t play in the tournament. You just got to embrace it.
Q. Have they ever said anything that made you laugh?
XANDER SCHAUFFELE: It’s so loud on 16 that you can’t hear anything. I think the louder it is the better. Someone can yell something obnoxious and you wouldn’t even hear it.
Q. Can you concentrate in that kind of atmosphere?
XANDER SCHAUFFELE: Yeah, it’s weird. At times it’s so loud that it’s almost easier to focus versus trying to hush the whole crowd and a couple people yell here and there and you can kind of hear and tell where it’s coming from. But when everyone’s yelling you can’t really hear anything.
The last group on Sunday will be Rickie Fowler (-14), Rohm (-13) and Chez Reavie (-13), yet another ASU grad.
And in the next to last group will be Bryson DeChampbeau (-13) with Xander and Phil (-12).
After watching him play just seven holes and what he’s done since, there’s no doubt in my mind that Xander belongs in these pairings. He’s a very interesting player to watch.