SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y.—Chalk it up to the crowds congregating around Tiger Woods, who was stumbling his way around the back. Or because the group was traversing the part of the Shinnecock Hills property furthest from the clubhouse. That it was early evening didn't help. Whatever the reason, perhaps all three, the trio of Xander Schauffele, Keegan Bradley, and Emiliano Grillo played the fourth, fifth and six holes in anonymity on Thursday. Literally. Subtract the volunteers spotted around the periphery, adding a sole fan would have doubled the audience.
A missed opportunity, really. Not every day you can get this close to U.S. Open contender. On a day where car crashes were littered around the course, Schauffele avoided major accident, submitting a workmanlike two-over 72, a number that places him in the Shinnecock mix.
Make no mistake, it was not a casual drive for Schauffele, who is making just his second U.S. Open appearance. Magnificent from the box (finding 11 fairways, finishing second in strokes gained: off-the-tee), the 24-year-old failed to take advantage of his second-shot positions, hitting only 10 greens. The flat stick wasn't exactly saving his behind either; in a three-hole stretch, he had makable looks (or as makable as Shinnecock allows) of 10, 12 and 17 feet, and didn't come close on any. If the standard bearer wasn't around, you'd think the guy wasn't breaking 80.
However, U.S. Opens, at least the traditional brutes, are not aesthetic affairs. They are survival, yes, and not just of the elements. It's a battle with yourself, to keep things cool when you're running hot. To know that whatever mistake you make won't be erased by an ensuing birdie. It's humbling yourself while ensuring confidence doesn't waver.
In that regard, a score board wasn't needed. By manner and air, the reins belonged to Schauffele. If he wanted to snap his putter or deposit his 7-iron into the gorse, well, he's a hell of an actor. Good shot or bad, Schauffele had the poker face of a mannequin, a dispassionate stride eerily reminiscent of Dustin Johnson. Jarring in comparison to his playing partners, as both Grillo (76) and Bradley (81) trudged in like defeated men.
Schauffele was able to shake off a disappointing par and back-to-back bogeys to cobble together an up-and-down on the eighth and a stress-free two putt on the ninth to keep the damage at two over, just three off the pace.
A position that's somewhat fitting, as it was this time last year that Schauffele introduced himself to the casual viewer. The then-23-year-old, who earned his way to Erin Hills by winning a five-man playoff at the uber-competitive Memphis sectional qualifier, was the surprise of Day 1 with a six-under 66. The San Diego State product acquitted himself well in his first major outing, stalking the leader board throughout the weekend to ultimately finish T-5.
While golf's history is infused with one-tournament wonders, Schauffele quickly proved the Open was not an anomaly but harbinger, winning the Greenbrier Classic three events later. He finished the campaign with a Tour Championship victory over Justin Thomas, wrapping up Rookie of the Year honors in tow. The tour, already inundated with young guns, was gifted another fledgling star.
However, not all stars emit the same light. Sometimes, it takes a little time to recognize their brightness. Although he's avoided the dreaded sophomore slump (evidenced in a T-2 at the Players and T-3 at the CIMB Classic), Schauffele's not in the same echelon, in conversation or resonation, as other under-25 entities. That may seem more impression than fact, although the lack of following for most of his round Thursday leans toward the latter.
That could be on the precipice of changing. It's a tight leader board, and while it doesn't have the presence of some of the sport's marquee names, there are major winners lurking in Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose, Jason Dufner and Henrik Stenson. Ian Poulter and Charley Hoffman have their share of war stories, and Shinnecock has historically awarded one from the veteran ranks. Throw in the general entropy this course promotes, they are circumstances that would rattle a lesser competitor.
The past year has showed Schauffele is not that. Even if no one else knows it yet.