PGA Championship: How two shots rewrote Xander Schauffele’s entire career

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Xander Schauffele has hit tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of shots in his career. So naturally, the most important one he ever faced was one you almost never practice.

Schauffele has spent a career as a runner-up. Yes, he captured a gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but in the world of golf, he was still part of the club no one wants to be in — the “best never to win a major” crew. Second-place finishes in the Masters and the Open, a third-place finish in the U.S. Open — he was close, so very very close, which can be worse than missing the cut entirely. Hope can’t kill you if you don’t play the weekend.

So when he stood in the sand of a bunker on 18, his ball on the fringe at about shin height, he understood exactly what needed to be done. Bryson DeChambeau had finished his PGA Championship with a clutch birdie at 18 to get to -20, the same score Schauffele had standing on the tee. A par on the hole, and Schauffele would fall into the uncertainty of a three-hole playoff. A birdie, and a first major championship would be his. A bogey, and yet another major title would slip through his hands.

Someone out there is making me earn this right now, he told himself as he looked over the shot. If you want to be a major champion, this is the kind of stuff you have to deal with.

He breathed deep, gripped and re-gripped, and lashed the ball 219 yards just short of the green, leaving himself 36 yards to the hole. And then it became a matter of making an up-and-down for a major title. One chip later, and Schauffele faced a six-foot, two-inch putt that would either change his life or amp the already-resonant questions to deafening levels.

Again Schauffele breathed deep, gripped and re-gripped, and stroked the ball toward the hole. It was on target the entire time, and then — for an agonizing instant — lipped around the edge of the cup before falling.

“I don't really remember it lipping in,” Schauffele recalled afterward. “I just heard everyone roaring and I just looked up to the sky in relief."

And that was it. PGA Championship secured. Lowest score to par ever in a major — minus-21 — achieved. Monkey on the back thrown into the sun.

It’s astounding how one centimeter can change an entire career’s trajectory. If that putt doesn’t drop, and the 2024 PGA Championship goes to a three-hole playoff, who knows how it ends up? If Schauffele doesn’t settle down and birdie two holes immediately after his first (and only) bogey of the day on 10, what becomes his narrative then?

Fortunately for Schauffele, it’s all behind him now. He’ll forever be a major winner, with a date at the PGA Championship for however long he wishes to claim it. His career has leveled up — though not, he was quick to point out, quite as high as one of his contemporaries.

“All of us are climbing this massive mountain. At the top of the mountain is Scottie Scheffler,” he said. “I won this today, but I'm still not that close to Scottie Scheffler in the big scheme of things. I got one good hook up there in the mountain up on that cliff, and I'm still climbing. I might have a beer up there on that side of the hill there and enjoy this, but it's not that hard to chase when someone is so far ahead of you.”

Xander Schauffele celebrates after winning the PGA Championship golf tournament at the Valhalla Golf Club, Sunday, May 19, 2024, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Jon Cherry)
Xander Schauffele celebrates after winning the PGA Championship golf tournament at the Valhalla Golf Club, Sunday, May 19, 2024, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Jon Cherry)

One of the first people to greet Schauffele as he made his way off the green was DeChambeau, who after the dramatic birdie at 18 to tie watched the tournament play out while staying warm on the practice range. DeChambeau finished several holes ahead of Schauffele, and after signing his scorecard, walked down to the Valhalla range to stay loose in case of a playoff. (Perhaps he remembered the lesson of Kenny Perry, who had a clubhouse lead but then faltered in a playoff when he decided to go sit in the broadcast booth rather than go to the range.)

DeChambeau pounded shots into the Kentucky twilight as a massive screen showed the tournament off to his left. He kept swinging as Schauffele made his way up the 18th, even hitting a ball when Schauffele was standing over his final putt.

When the putt swirled around the cup and went in, DeChambeau grimaced briefly, then jogged up the steep hill to catch Schauffele in the post-round crush. He and Justin Thomas both embraced Schauffele, then stepped back to let him enjoy the life-changing moment.

Afterward, DeChambeau signed a few more autographs for some nearby kids, and then he grew contemplative. “Proud of myself for the way I handled adversity,” he said after shooting a final-round 64. “Definitely disappointing, but one that gives me a lot of momentum for the rest of the majors. I said today it was closing time, but it will be closing time hopefully, hopefully over the next couple majors.”

DeChambeau has two foundational blocks to build on going forward. First, he shot a -20 in a major. That would have been good enough to win, or at least force a playoff, in literally every single major ever played before this one. Beyond that, he was the clear fan favorite on Sunday, perhaps because of his newly found dedication to creating both content and celebration for his fan base.

“When the moment comes, knowing what to do, what to say, how to act is really important,” he said. “I'm doing it a lot more for the fans and for the people around and trying to be a bit of an entertainer that plays good golf every once in a while.”

DeChambeau might be the story later, but for now, it’s all Schauffele. Out on the course, as the sun set beyond the far edges of the first nine, Schauffele posed with wave after wave of PGA of America officials, smiling all the time. And why not? He’d achieved a lifelong goal. Even if it took all the way to the 72nd hole on Sunday night to claim it.