NEWTOWN SQUARE, Pa. – Pass Jim Furyk the Advil.
He has a whopper of a headache coming on.
When U.S. Ryder Cup decision-makers implemented the so-called Billy Horschel Rule after the 2014 matches, their intent was to make sure that the hottest American player had a spot on the roster. Though it sounds smart in theory – just push back the deadline for the last guy! – it’s messy in practice.
By passing over Tony Finau in the first group of captain’s picks, Furyk essentially told him that he hasn’t yet done enough to warrant a spot on the squad. Delaying the final pick also creates an unintended consequence: It cracks open the door for another contender to sneak in and impress before the deadline, which is exactly what reigning PGA Tour Rookie of the Year Xander Schauffele has done here at Aronimink, firing rounds of 63-64 to surge in front at the BMW Championship.
At 13-under 127, Schauffele has a two-shot lead over Justin Rose – setting the stage, perhaps, for another Ryder Cup audition.
“I feel like I’m on a mission here,” Schauffele said.
The 24-year-old raised a few eyebrows after his opening round, when he said that even with a win, he wasn’t sure it’d be enough to influence Captain Furyk’s opinion.
“I feel like if I were Jim right now,” Schauffele said, “I would pick (Finau), to be completely honest.”
That scenario got even more complicated Friday, when Finau carded a 64 to jump into a tie for 10th, just five shots off the lead. It seems he’s not going away quietly, either.
“I’m in a position where I feel like a win is the only way I’d even be in consideration,” Schauffele said. “Tony, obviously, is the guy right now.”
Finau was flattered by his peer’s praise, even if he thought Schauffele was “being a little generous.”
“It’s probably pretty good to be Jim right now,” he said. “You’re not going to make a bad choice.”
But it could be a controversial one.
Though Finau’s entire body of work is stronger, with 10 top-10s, Schauffele (12th) actually finished ahead of Finau (15th) in qualifying, on the strength of top-6 finishes at The Players, U.S. Open and Open Championship.
Those timely results are his biggest points-earners and only top-20 finishes since April.
“I’ve got a lot to prove, not just to everyone else but to myself this weekend,” Schauffele said. “I’ve been failing a lot, so it would be nice to turn the switch and clutch up.”
This has been a transitional year for Schauffele as he adjusts to life as a primetime player. Before last year’s U.S. Open, the only thing most fans knew about Schauffele was that he was a rookie with a last name that was difficult to pronounce. Then he popped up with a tie for fifth at Erin Hills and used that newfound confidence to win The Greenbrier. Two months later, among the world’s best at East Lake, he prevailed over Justin Thomas to capture the Tour Championship and become a no-brainer choice for Rookie of the Year.
It was a life-changing moment for a player who, a few months earlier, was battling just to keep his card.
“But after that breakout you kind of want validation, to prove to everyone that it wasn’t a fluke year and that you’re actually a great golfer,” said Schauffele’s caddie, Austin Kaiser.
But the more he pressed, the worse he played. That added stress showed up on the greens – he regressed from 40th to 113th in strokes gained: putting – and in his overall results.
“Guys around here tell him that he’s an upcoming star,” Kaiser said. “And when you hear that, and you expect to have those results and you’re tying for 49th, you start doubting yourself at that point, like, Am I that good? Deep down, he knows he’s that good. The shots he hits, the mind he has under pressure, it’s top notch.”
Those top finishes in the majors put Schauffele in position to lock up an automatic spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup, and he played with Furyk (and Finau) during the first two rounds of the PGA. Needing a high finish to crack the top 8, Schauffele instead played his first seven holes in 4 over and needed to battle the rest of the way. He still had a chance to make the team Sunday, but he shot 72 and slid to 35th – a common theme throughout the season, as he ranks 183rd in final-round scoring average on Tour (72.39).
“I have lots to prove to myself,” he said. “I just want to win and handle my business. I feel like I haven’t been doing that as well on the weekends. But I feel like I’ve been a little more focused this week and a little more serious.”
The turning point may have come this week, during his five-hour car ride from Boston to Philadelphia. Schauffele had just tied for 49th in the second playoff event, endangering not only his chances of landing a wildcard pick but also, at No. 41 in the FedExCup standings, of returning to East Lake for the Tour Championship. Assessing the year with Kaiser, they agreed that they needed to be more disciplined.
“We were more methodical last year,” Kaiser said, “and we needed to get back to that. This year we’ve been messier and playing more freely – and it’s easy to do that, when you have a three-year exemption. Last year we were playing to secure our card. It’s a totally different mindset.”
Since Schauffele’s speed control on the greens was the chief concern, they decided to implement a new routine in which he’d make two practice strokes before stepping in.
It’s a small change that’s made a massive difference: Schauffele is ranked first in putting this week, needing only 54 putts through two rounds, holing 242 feet worth of putts and gaining more than five strokes on the field.
“That’s what I’m most proud of,” Kaiser said. “He’s stuck to that plan.”
When Schauffele won the Tour Championship last year, he wasn’t even disappointed that he didn’t walk away with the season-long title. He was just thrilled to win, period.
The same might be true if he takes the BMW.
Whether it leads to a Ryder Cup berth sounds secondary.
“I just want to prove to myself that I can win again and be clutch,” he said. “I always thought I was a rather clutch player coming down the stretch, and this year has said otherwise. I’m trying to prove it to myself again.”
He’d prove it to Furyk and the rest of the U.S. team, too.