KAPALUA, Hawaii — As he walked off the 18th green at the Plantation Course Sunday afternoon with a disappointing par and approached the scoring trailer, Gary Woodland spotted Xander Schauffele and made a beeline for him. Forcing a smile, Woodland playfully hit him in the shoulders, knocking him back slightly.
Too bad he couldn’t have tackled him a few holes earlier. Might have been the only thing that would have slowed him down.
“He knows he could kick my ass if he wanted to,” Schauffele said with a laugh of the strapping 6-foot-1 Woodland, who is built like a free safety.
Maybe so, but Schauffele, all 5-10 of him, is proving he possesses quite the finishing kick.
Fueled by twice holing out from off the green, Schauffele, a veritable comeback kid in golf, fired a final-round 11-under 62 and stunned Woodland to capture the Sentry Tournament of Champions in the first PGA Tour event of 2019. Schauffele, who finished at 23-under 269, tied the course record held by four others and won his fourth tour title—and second in as many starts—and they all have been of the come-from-behind variety. In addition, the La Jolla, Calif., native set a tournament record for lowest final round by a winner, previously held by Sergio Garcia, who carded a 64 in 2002.
“Honestly a bit speechless. It was a crazy day,” said Schauffele, 25, who began the final round five strokes behind Woodland and was six back after he bogeyed the opening hole before going on to post his career low as a professional. “It’s by far the best final round I ever played, I can tell you that much.”
Woodland, 34, who has yet to convert a 54-hole lead in a stroke-play event in seven attempts, tied his worst round of the week with a 68 and was the only golfer to shoot all four rounds in the 60s. Brilliant stuff, and it simply wasn’t enough, falling a stroke short.
That “no defense” maxim to golf can be quite offensive.
“This one will sting tonight,” Woodland, runner-up for the second time this season, said bravely after shooting the second-lowest aggregate score at Kapalua without winning. “I knew what he was doing, and the competitor in me knew I needed to do one better, and, unfortunately, I didn’t get it done.”
Neither did Rory McIlroy, who began the day three back and went home without a win for the seventh time in the last year while playing in the final group. “Couldn’t get anything going, but, really, it’s all good, a good start to the year,” he said after a mediocre 72. “But, honestly, I don’t think anyone could have beaten Xander today.”
“I wanted to get to 20 under, and that would have been woefully short,” said Marc Leishman, who had a 71 playing alongside Schauffele and ended up T-4 with McIlroy and defending champion Dustin Johnson, who shot 67. “It felt like I shot 80 out there. He had bogey at the first, missed some putts, and he was, what, 11 under on his last 14 holes? Yeah, that’s pretty good.”
It started getting good for Schauffele when he pitched in from 18 yards for eagle at the par-5 ninth hole, which he thought might “spice things up.” Until then, he was playing like he had nothing to lose. Then again, he plays that way all the time, taking the Brooks Koepka route to greater things by feeling a bit overlooked and assuming the mantle of underdog.
“I just still feel like an underdog,” he said after rising to No. 6 in the Official World Golf Ranking. “I feel like until you're No. 1, you're chasing. So guys like Bryson [DeChambeau] and Justin [Thomas] … JT's put together a ton of good years, Brooks has been crushing it. So they're just, they keep putting that flag way out there for me to go and chase, and I feel like that's what I've been doing.”
When Schauffele holed out for eagle at the par-4 12th from 107 yards, and then birdied 14 and 15—after semi-sculling his drive into a bunker but securing par at the 13th in between—it was a bewildered Woodland who was chasing in the soft Kona winds. “I was flowing pretty smoothly,” Schauffele said with a grin.
Twice the Kansas native answered, however, first at the 15th and then again at No. 17 when he holed a 15-footer on top of Schauffele’s 10-foot birdie putt to reach 22 under par. Theirs were the only two birdies on the penultimate hole in the final round as they pulled away from the field. Justin Thomas, the 2017 champion, shot a 65 and was a distant third at 274.
Schauffele finally felt the nerves on the long par-5 home hole, regripping his 5-wood several times because his hands were shaking. Then he unleashed a beauty of a high draw from 272 yards that tumbled down the slope and stopped 12 feet from the hole. Knowing an eagle would likely put away the title, he nervously pulled the putt, but tapped in for birdie. Woodland couldn’t answer, missing from 10 feet after coming up short of the green on his second shot.
“Gary was kind enough to let me off easy,” Schauffele said sheepishly.
None of the wins for the 2017 PGA Tour rookie of the year have come easy, having to erase deficits ranging from two to five strokes. He owns four victories in 18 months, and they have been quality titles since he broke through at the 2017 Greenbrier Classic. He won the Tour Championship later that year and, in his previous start in November, captured the WGC-HSBC Champions in a playoff over Ryder Cup player Tony Finau. He also finished T-6 at the U.S. Open and T-2 at the Open Championship last year.
“This is the stuff you sort of dream about,” Schauffele said. “This is why everyone works hard and does the right stuff. But to actually pull it off it feels awesome. And to answer your sort of half question, no, I could never see myself … I could see myself doing [this], but it's hard to believe just sitting here and talking about it.”
At one point in his post-round interview, Schauffele described himself as “a ghost.” It was a curious remark for someone who leads the FedEx Cup standings and the money list. But, granted, he is an unassuming sort with a simple and charming approach to life, such as continuing to drive his Toyota Camry after earning more than $6 million in his rookie year.
“I'm a pretty mellow guy,” he said, “but I’ve got a fire burning inside, but you guys will probably never see that. Maybe you will. I don't know.”
On this day you could see. It was there in the scorched earth in the West Maui mountains.