Players Championship

Players Championship: Xander Schauffele’s torrid Saturday sets up a turning-point Sunday

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Kevin C. Cox

March 16, 2024

PONTE VEDRA BEACH — Last May at the Wells Fargo Championship, Xander Schauffele faced a deceptively tough task on Sunday: catch Wyndham Clark. He couldn't do it that day, shooting a 70 to Clark's 68, which gave Clark his first PGA Tour victory and started a career-redefining stretch that has now encompassed a major victory, a signature event win, and a top-five World Ranking.

Turn to the third round of the 2024 Players Championship, and Schauffele had a familiar problem—once again Clark was ahead of him, this time four shots clear instead of two. But at TPC Sawgrass, history and memory didn't count for much. Schauffele, himself a seven-time PGA Tour winner and the reigning Olympic gold medalist, started the third round strong, shooting a four-under 32 on the front, and erased the large deficit by the 12th hole. When it was all over, the 30-year-old from San Diego had posted a 65 to Clark's 70, and now holds a one-shot lead with just the final round to play.

Of course, this was Saturday, not Sunday, and Schauffele knows the job isn't done. He also knows Clark isn't going away.

"I don't think I'm an intimidating person, sitting here at 5'9", 5'10"," Schauffele joked. "I'm pretty friendly with most of the guys out here. Sort of just kill them with my clubs."

Killing with his clubs is exactly what he accomplished early Saturday, starting on the second hole when Schauffele responded to an opening birdie with a six-foot birdie of his own. The putter stayed hot on the fourth, when he cut into Clark’s deficit for the first time with a 10-foot birdie, and again on 6, when a 13-footer narrowed the lead to just two shots. A textbook up-and-down birdie on the par-5 ninth got him to within a shot, and when his 10-footer dropped on 12, he had pulled even for the first time.

The jaw-dropping highlight of the day, however, came two holes later, when he faced a 58-footer for birdie on 14:

In fact, Schauffele's back nine, and his last five holes in particular, weren't quite as smooth as the bogey-free 65 on the scorecard might have indicated.

"I only hit two fairways on the back nine," he said after the round. "I was just told that on radio. Don't feel bad for me. When you make 58-footers, you kind of get up-and-down on holes like 18 from the front rough, it takes a little bit of stress off certain parts of your game."

Schauffele knows too well, though, that you can't count on two straight days of magic. But there is some consolation in the fact that Clark had his own good fortune; he chunked his tee shot on 17 into the water, and made a brilliant recovery to save bogey. Schauffele will be more than happy to take the one-shot advantage, even though what he would really love is to get to the 18th hole tomorrow with a massive lead, "smiling at your caddie and the crowd."

When asked for the day's highlights, Schauffele pointed to his aggressive second shot on the par-5 11th, when he blasted out from the trees almost to the green, then got up and down for the birdie. The 58-footer wasn't too shabby either.

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Kevin C. Cox

More than any specific shot, though, he was proud of his demeanor.

"I'd say it was kind of more how I carried myself," he said. "At times in the past I'll get a bit ahead of myself and lose a little bit of confidence when I shouldn't. Today, I tried to stay in my own little box there with [his caddie] Austin [Kaiser] and not look at too many leaderboards when I didn't have to. It's Saturday, there's no need to do that. I heard roars all around the property and I really just kind of stayed in my lane."

Schauffele's 65 wasn't the day's best score; that belonged to Brian Harman, who posted 64 and sits just two shots off the lead. Schauffele expects a similar big run tomorrow, from someone, and his main thought after his round was trying to fix everything that felt wonky in an otherwise stellar performance.

"I'm going to go to the range right now and try and clean up some of those missed fairways on the back nine," he said, as the sun went down. "I know the guys are good out here. No one is going to lay over here and play dead. Guys are aggressive at all times."

When speaking about his work with swing coach Chris Como, Schauffele admitted he still feels uncomfortable with certain elements of his game, but he paraphrased an old proverb about his progress: "a steady drip breaks a stone." In other words, slow but determined effort can eventually solve a big problem.

In microcosm, his effort on Saturday, birdie after birdie, was the steady drip that cracked Clark, who will now have to do what he has never done before and come from behind in the fourth round to win a PGA Tour event. But unlike Schauffele, who hasn't won since 2022, Clark has plenty of recent experience prevailing on the game's biggest stages.

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Come Sunday at TPC Sawgrass, Wyndham Clark and Xander Schauffele will be playing together for the eighth time in a PGA Tour event, Clark with the head-to-head advantage (4-2-1).

Kevin C. Cox

Schauffele, however, has a slight leg up to start the day, which is certainly better than where he found himself last spring at the Wells Fargo. And he has plenty of motivation, a win at the Players Championship becoming an important next step in Schauffele fulfilling the potential that he—and golf fans—know lies within.

So it is that Saturday's chase down now gives way to an easily harder yet more critical feat: holding the lead—and finishing the job.