Travelers Championship

TPC River Highlands



RIsk vs. Reward

Xander Schauffele's major-winning decision, explained

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For the second tee shot in a row in the closing moments of the PGA Championship, Xander Schauffele had received an unlucky break.

On the 18th hole Sunday, Schauffele hammered a drive right on his line: A tight fade at the right side of the left bunker, which for the three days before, was just out of reach.

And that was quite literally, where his ball ended.

“I hit it exactly the way I wanted,” he said. “I must’ve been a little juiced.”

With his feet in the bunker and significantly below his ball, which was sitting on grass, Schauffele was 247 yards away from the hole on the par 5 and needed to birdie to win. He had a decision to make about what to do next.

Conventional wisdom would be pretty clear on the answer: Recognize the awkward stance, and bunt your ball back into position. It was about 150 yards to cover the water. Something a little past that would put a nice, full wedge in your hands. Play it like a straightforward three-shot hole.

It might’ve worked. But even if it did, it wouldn’t have been the right call.

Schauffele opted for a messier route. He choked down severely on a 4-iron, aimed way right with what he called a “baseball swing,” and tried to sling a high hook into the vicinity of the green.

“I could not believe how far right he was aiming,” Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee said on "Live From" after the final round.

“I just wanted to push that thing up as far as possible,” Schauffele said afterward. “My only concern was shanking it, using more of a baseball swing.”

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It was a masterful decision—and not because it worked. I tweeted it before he even hit the shot, and I would’ve defended it even if he did hit that shank he was worried about.

To understand why, let’s crunch some numbers.

Let’s reasonably imagine under the old-school route, Schauffele hits a safe shot down the fairway and finishes between 100 and 125 yards.

  • From that range this season, his average proximity is 24 feet, 8 inches to the hole.
  • His make rate on putts between 20 and 25 feet is 11 percent.
  • His birdie (or better) percentage from this range is 21.5 percent

With all this in mind, we can safely guesstimate that opting for this play would’ve put Schauffele's chance to win the PGA Championship somewhere around 15 percent outright. The rest of the time, he’s in a playoff with Bryson DeChambeau. Flip a coin to decide that one.

The thing is, Schauffele doesn’t really play par 5s that way. He is, in many ways, the poster boy for the new-school philosophy: Get it close and figure it out. Schauffele has the highest go-for-the-green percentage on the PGA Tour this season, 83 percent. That’s what he did on this occasion.

  • With his baseball swing, he advanced his ball to 36 yards from the green.
  • His proximity on shots from outside 30 yards is 9 feet, 6 inchs
  • His make rate from this range is just over 41 percent

Instead of settling for an 80 percent chance of a playoff, hitting this shot gave him a coin-flip chance of winning his first major outright, with a playoff the next likeliest option.

Then, Xander hit a good shot from the fairway. He hit his ball to six feet, where he makes about 72 percent of his putts—including this one.

“It was a brave shot,” Golf Channel's Paul McGinley said on "Live From." “It could’ve been a top. All it takes is one slip of the foot.”

It’s true this was a brave shot in that it brought the worst possible outcome into play, but therein lies the lesson.

It’s tempting to see the safest potential option as the smartest one. Laying up—or laying back—is often the most convenient decision. It's certainly one of the easiest ones to make. You probably won't hit a shank, like the kind that crossed Xander's mind, doing that. But even if you can't get to the green, it's rarely the right move. Schauffele had the foresight to recognize as much in the moment, and he lifted the trophy because of it.

“I get up there and just kind of chuckled. I was like, if you want to be a major champion, this is the kind of stuff you have to deal with,” Schauffele said when he saw the shot at hand. “I just kept telling myself, 'Man, someone out there is making me earn this.'”

Earned it, he did.