What to make of Xander Schauffele? It's been one of the questions in and around golf -- specifically on the PGA Tour -- over the last three years, and it's often been a query that has had no great answers.
Schauffele is an impressive talent who doesn't win very often compared to his peers. What do you do with that? How do you think about that?
He's been ranked inside the top 15 in the Official World Golf Rankings every week since he won the WGC-HSBC Champions late in October 2018 since breaking into that top 15 in the world for good. That's 44 consecutive months as a top 15 player in the world, and until Sunday's victory at the Travelers Championship, he had just one individual PGA Tour victory in that span of time, a come-from-behind win at the January 2019 Tournament of Champions.
Since then, he added an Olympic gold medal in a -- to put it kindly -- mediocre field in Japan as well as a Zurich Classic team win earlier this year when he partnered with his vacation pal, Patrick Cantlay. The former doesn't count on the PGA Tour, the latter doesn't count in the Official World Golf Rankings. Neither counts as an individual PGA Tour victory.
Schauffele's two-stroke win over Sahith Theegala and J.T. Poston this weekend was a big deal. Not just because he did it in a low-key good field (14th-best field in the world so far in 2022), but also because he hadn't done it in so long.
"I like to talk to my team a lot about how I'm feeling week to week," Schauffele said after his win. "It's been a year where my stats have been very solid. Just haven't really put in four good rounds of golf. So I think subconsciously -- or without myself even really knowing -- I was getting a little impatient. This week I was just trying to be as aware, self-aware as possible to just stay as patient as possible. Just realize that I put the work in, and if I can just sort of do what I've been doing and just focus a little bit more throughout the day that it will pay off in a big way and fortunately it did."
It's not just the Official World Golf Rankings where Schauffele has thrived. He is ranked No. 5 in the world in total strokes gained since the start of 2019, which implies that a lack of winning is not just a function of him maxing out the ceiling of his talent. He's not necessarily squeezing the greatest results from a subpar game. According to the numbers, his talent is equivalent to -- and in some cases greater than -- that of his peers.
Others who hang out in that strokes gained neighborhood have won in bunches. Golfers like Jon Rahm (eight wins, albeit one at a team event), Rory McIlroy (seven wins), Justin Thomas (six wins), Cantlay (six wins, one at a team event), Dustin Johnson (seven wins), Hideki Matsuyama (four wins), Viktor Hovland (six wins), Scottie Scheffler (seven wins) and Collin Morikawa (six wins) surround Schauffele in the top 10 in strokes gained since the start of 2019.
Schauffele's closest comparison is probably Webb Simpson, who ranks just behind him in total strokes gained in that period of time. But his game is far less well-rounded than the rest. He has just two wins since Jan. 1, 2019, but he also has maybe the biggest categorical deficiency -- strokes gained off the tee -- of anybody in the top 10 in strokes gained. Schauffle, on the other hand, is in the top 30 in every strokes gained category over the last three and a half years.
Perhaps, like Tony Finau (17th in strokes gained since the start of 2019), Schauffele is a victim of his own statistical success. If he was objectively worse at golf, nobody would care that he doesn't win as often as the other top 10 players in the world. However, there is certainly a burden of expectation when you never fall out of the top 10 or top 15. It's clear that you have the talent of the top players, but you never cash it in. That can lead to some wondering if you have what it takes to close out wins. That might sound unfair, but the light on a top 10 player in the world is harsh.
Take a look at these numbers below. Before Sunday, Schauffele ranked 10th on this list with a winning percentage of 3.6%, and that included a shadow leaderboard win at the 2020 Tour Championship, which the OWGR awards based on actual score at the event and not based on starting strokes (which the PGA Tour recognizes). Rahm, too, is given credit for a shadow leaderboard win, but that victory affects his overall winning percentage a lot less than Schauffele (without it, Schauffele would drop to a career 3.0% winning percentage, 11th on this list).
Here are the top 12 players in the world ordered by their historical winning percentage in OWGR events.— Kyle Porter (@KylePorterCBS) June 27, 2022
While it's true that Schauffele was not the wunderkind in high school and college that guys like Thomas, McIlroy and Rahm were, we're also not comparing him to his younger self, we're comparing him to the very best players on the planet, which is now what he is.
"I think to win more," Schauffele said of his goals the rest of this season. "But I really think this was like, in a small way, this is a big win for me mentally. Just because I sort of had to check myself, you know what I mean? When you've been out here and things are going easy you just expect to play well all the time. Sometimes it's good to take a step back. And I thought I did that this week.
"Like I said, I don't know if that's the reason I won, but it definitely made me feel more comfortable and helped my process throughout the week."
That Xander Schauffle has not won as much as his talent has implied that he should -- a level of talent that others have capitalized on shown by their own trophy cases -- sounds like a criticism, and perhaps in some ways it is. However, it's meant to be less of a nod to the level of talent he has and the burden of expectations every great player shoulders and should want.
If little is expected of you, if you're not critiqued for how little you win, then it means you're inconsequential to the game at the highest level. You don't have the tools to be among the greats. That's not Schauffele, and it hasn't been in a long time. With a win at the Travelers, his march toward cashing in that talent with more and more victories in the future has resumed. Sunday was a big victory in the micro sense that the Travelers is a great tournament, but it was perhaps a bigger victory in the macro for one of the top golfers in the world.