Xander Schauffele still trying to master closing formula after slipping in final round at Phoenix Open

Athletes are often vague about vague sports ideas. They will rarely comment definitively on nonempirical events, and loathe to talk about anything that is not grounded in statistical evidence. They speak with ambiguity as to not be held accountable to any specific declarations. And then there is Xander Schauffele.

All Schauffele needed to do on Sunday at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, which he co-led at 18 under after 54 holes, is shoot slightly worse than field average to lock up the fifth PGA Tour win of his career and first in more than two years. Instead, he shot 71 on a day when the field shot 68.8, and he broke Data Golf’s winning model in the process.

Schauffele, who has so few holes in his game, should have won on Sunday. He should not have played the first 14 holes in 2 over before making a little bit of noise at the end. He should have put the tournament away early on before letting a multiple-time major winner like Koepka back in the mix; Koepka played great with a 65, but he started the day five back of Schauffele, which should not have been enough against the No. 4 player in the world.

This is, if not a trend, then at least a theme for Schauffele. Of his eight best chances to win going into the final round of a professional event, he’s increased his odds of winning by his performance alone just three times — and he’s won none of those events. Well, technically, he finished with the fewest strokes taken at one of them, but that was the 2020 Tour Championship. Dustin Johnson won the tournament because he started at 10 under to Schauffele’s 3 under. And this might actually prove the point here.

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Schauffele tends to win from behind — in some cases, way behind — and at times can appear allergic to leading golf tournaments. He would not be alone in this. Pros talk all the time about how uncomfortable it can be to have your name atop any leaderboard, and Schauffele seemed to confirm that on Sunday.

“For one, congrats to Brooks,” said Schauffele. “He’s a great example. Won four majors, true champion and it shows. Hasn’t been in great form, comes out here, and wins a tournament. There is a lot to be said for him and his recipe for winning. Me and my team are trying to figure it out ourselves.”

Justin Ray had the goods on why Schauffele might say something like this.

Speaking of Schauffele – he now is 0-for-4 in his PGA Tour career closing out 54-hole leads after a Sunday 71 left him in a tie for second place. Xander now has 10 runner-up finishes on the PGA Tour, most of any player since 2017. 

As always, this story is endlessly complex. It’s not just one thing or one idea or one prevailing narrative. It’s an amalgamation of 100 different variables all mashed together to form the story of Xander. However, that story has been one that he’s admitted has not included enough winning. 

Over the last 24 months, only five players — Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas and Schauffele — are averaging two strokes gained per round or better. An elite number. Of those, only Schauffele has not won a golf tournament. The other four have won 19 combined. There’s likely a reason for that. The same reason Schauffele said, “Me and my team are trying to figure it out ourselves.”

Winning is both a skill and an art. Schauffele has mastered the skill, but the art of it — especially as a frontrunner — has eluded him for the last two years. His talent is such that he will almost certainly figure it out and win a lot more in the future. But after another close call at TPC Scottsdale, questions remain about maybe the most complete golfer in the world.

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