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Players Championship: Xander Schauffele will join his critics in sipping on 'the Haterade' after latest gut punch

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Kevin C. Cox

PONTE VEDRA BEACH — Contend as often as Xander Schauffele does on the PGA Tour and chances are you're going to finish second a few times along the way. That's the case for everybody not named Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus, both of whom, by the way, had their share of runner-up finishes, too. It's hard to win out here. Schauffele, who does have seven tour titles to his credit, is keenly aware of this fact.

To win on Sunday at the Players Championship, particularly given how ripe the conditions were for scoring, was about as hard as it gets. Even when you're in the final group like Schauffele was, even when you possess the all-around talent that often makes the California native one of the betting favorites whenever he tees it up, and even when you start one under through two in the final round, there is absolutely zero guarantee of a triumph. It also certainly doesn't help matters when Scottie Scheffler, injured neck and all, makes his inevitable charge from five strokes behind.

But my goodness, none of that makes it any less maddening to watch Schauffele come up painfully short again. He shouldn't have, either. He had six feet for birdie at the iconic 17th hole to match Scheffler's 20-under total, only to miss the putt. And he left an eagle putt two feet short, right in the heart, at the par-5 16th minutes earlier. There was also a missed nine-footer for a must-have par at the 15th hole, his second straight bogey at the worst possible time. It was right there for the taking. Schauffele had it.

Schauffele, unfortunately, has a habit of "having it" and then letting it slip right through his fingers all too often. Sunday's tie for second marked his 13th runner-up finish on the PGA Tour, and this one somehow felt like the most painful of all. Outside of Scheffler, who became the first back-to-back winner in the history of the Players, Schauffele would have been right up there as one of the tour's dream winners as the the LIV v. Tour saga continues to play out. It would have been his biggest win to date, bigger than the 2018 Tour Championship and bigger than his 2021 Olympic gold medal (though that's depending on who you ask).

Of course, one could argue that Schauffele has had more painful gut punches before. He was tied for the 54-hole lead at the 2018 Open Championship at Carnoustie and shot three over to tie for second. At the 2019 Masters, Tiger Woods clipped Schauffele, as well as Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson, by one stroke. Two years later, Schauffele stood on the 16th tee at Augusta National having just cut Hideki Matsuyama's lead to two strokes with four straight birdies. He promptly made a triple and wound up tied for third. The man knows pain.

"These suck," Schauffele said of his history of close calls. "When I went to bed last night, it's not exactly how I envisioned walking off the 18th green."

Schauffele would have preferred a nice mic drop, which is exactly what this would have been had he finished off his third-round lead. Earlier this week, when asked about the current consecutive made-cut streak he's on (now 41 straight), Schauffele said "I play to win and I don't play to make cuts, so it makes it easier to make the cut when you're playing to win." Forgive us for the internet terminology, but a Schauffele victory would have sent this PGA Tour tweet directly to the meme Hall of Fame.

Instead, the "Xander can't close" narrative will continue. The haters will be out in full force on social media. Schauffele, taking this one like a champ, as always, says he'll be joining them.

"I'm going to lick my wounds," he said. "I'll probably join them in the Haterade at this moment. It is what it is."

Schauffele will hang in there. He always does. Anyone who comes this close time and time again and comes back for more is simply built different. Plus, there are always still a few positives to take with him as we head into another major championship season, where all eyes will be on him yet again.

"A ton of positives. I haven't cracked an egg since they moved this tournament to this time of year," Schauffele said. "To hang in there with the best of them is good for me to know. I came in second … lost by a lot though to Webb [Simpson, in 2018], I believe, when it was firm and fast. That second felt different. This one sucks a little bit more, but just another close call."

They all equally suck. But all it takes is one (major) win to make you forget just how bad. Ask Sergio Garcia, Dustin Johnson or Phil Mickelson, who all finally climbed the mountaintop when they were in their 30s. Schauffele turned 30 this past fall. You could make the case that some of his best golf is still ahead. It was for all three of those guys, too.

For this evening, though, it's 12 stages of grief time. He's been through that before, and he's come out of it just fine every time.

"I tell myself all the time, if you're trying to win you've got to walk through the fire," he said. "And if you're able to walk through unscathed, then you're going to win the tournament.

"My dad told me a long time ago to commit, execute and accept. I'm swallowing a heavy dose of acceptance right now, but that's kind of what I did. I tried to commit, I executed poorly on some shots, and here I am accepting it."