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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Xander Schauffele birdies No. 18 to secure breakthrough major win at PGA Championship

Xander Schauffele reacts after making the winning putt on No. 18 at the PGA Championship on Sunday at Valhalla Golf Course in Louisville, Ky.  (Getty Images)
By Chuck Culpepper Washington Post

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The smile that lit up Valhalla Golf Club Sunday evening gleamed with such wattage and depth that it seemed to register all the seven years of its construction. It most certainly could not help itself. When it poured out from a face previously clenched and shone across the storied 18th green at another PGA Championship here while gallery noise swirled all around it, anyone who begrudged it had to be a prude.

The smile belonged to 30-year-old San Diegan Xander Schauffele, sprang from a six-foot birdie putt you wouldn’t wish on an enemy and owed its might to a bushel of factors. It stemmed from the remorseless donnybrook that preceded it as Schauffele managed the steepest pressure of his outstanding career, a scenario that forced him to go up-and-down on No. 17 (for par) and No. 18 (for birdie) to nudge ahead after Bryson DeChambeau had tied him with a loud birdie on No. 18 about half an hour prior. It stemmed from his habitual contention across his first 27 majors ever since he turned up at the 2017 U.S. Open in Wisconsin as an understated but chipper kid, shot 66 off the bat and finished tied for fifth. It owed to his 20 top-25 finishes, which included 12 top 10s and six top fives but zero real cases of squandering.

As Schauffele’s face lost its fret and gained its freedom while he hugged caddie Austin Kaiser, the smile didn’t even care that he had just posted the lowest score to par in men’s major tournament history, 21 under, to best DeChambeau by one and Viktor Hovland by three after those three separated themselves from a horse race that stayed populous through morning and midday. It wouldn’t have cared if he had shot 21 over. It just sprang from the suspense when the ball rolled to the left edge of the cup, spun across the back edge and plunked down forever.

“When it lipped in,” the popular winner said, “I don’t really remember it lipping in. I just heard everyone roaring, and I just looked up to the sky in relief.”

At the end of a labyrinthine path to the smile, never again would anyone ask this Californian man of the world, this son of a French-German-American father and a Taiwanese-American mother raised in Japan, Hey, when are you going to win a major?

“Proud of Xander for finally getting the job done,” said DeChambeau, the 2020 U.S. Open champion who was bidding to become the second straight PGA Championship winner from the Saudi-funded LIV Golf circuit. “He’s an amazing golfer and a well-deserved major champion now. He’s played well for a long, long time.”

“I’m so happy for him,” said Collin Morikawa, his friend, his fellow Las Vegas resident and his playing partner Sunday, when they began tied atop the leader board but diverged. Morikawa, a two-time major champion, shot a 16-par 71 while Schauffele finished with a 65 after starting Thursday with a major-record-tying 62.

“I don’t think I’d ever look at it as lacking,” Schauffele said of his prior major record. “I looked at it as someone that is trying really hard and needs more experience. All those close calls for me, even last week (at the PGA Tour stop in Charlotte), that sort of feeling, it gets to you at some point. It just makes this even sweeter.”

Yeah, you could tell by the smile.

It never seemed to come out to play during the most excruciating round of all his major contentions as he played the humongous Valhalla, which the players treated like an opportunity rather than a hindrance. As birdies spent a fourth day pinballing around the 7,609-yard premises, some contenders couldn’t quite menace (Shane Lowry, Morikawa, Justin Rose, hometown man Justin Thomas), while others dipped slightly (Sahith Theegala, Tony Finau), while others arrived too late (Billy Horschel with his closing 64, Scottie Scheffler with his closing 65).

Schauffele weathered his first crucial juncture at the par-4 No. 6, where he needed to make a 14-foot putt for par and did so, whooshing him into an 11-foot birdie on the par-5 No. 7. He bungled a bit on No. 10, erring both from the tee and from a fairway bunker, then three-putting from 17 feet for a dud of a bogey. At that moment, anyone accustomed to watching Schauffele come up shy of igniting on major Sundays might have committed the sin of assuming.

“I’ve made a stupid bogey before and I’ve hit a really good shot after that,” he said, and so damned if he didn’t birdie No. 11 from eight feet and No. 12 right down the boulevard from seven feet, but of course he did not smile.

Two groups up ahead, DeChambeau and Hovland performed that curious thing where two muscle dudes inspire each other to great heights. Neither bogeyed anything over the first 17 holes. DeChambeau’s body language, occasionally a question in his loud career, soared as the galleries roared. They got to No. 18 both at 19 under, one shot behind Schauffele, and when they got to the green, DeChambeau seemed disgruntled by his flimsy approach shot.

He quelled that by rolling in a dramatic 11-foot birdie that plopped in on its last rotation to usher him to 20 under, whereupon it seemed Valhalla might stage the third playoff in its four storied turns at the PGA Championship. Hovland, the Norwegian wunderkind who won $18 million last late summer in the FedEx Cup playoffs, saw his 10-footer broke badly, and his closing bogey would seem unfitting. He would ladle more what-if atop his 2023 PGA Championship, when he spent Sunday in an unsuccessful pursuit of Brooks Koepka.

Schauffele knows all about what-if, and now he had to haul that knowledge through Nos. 17 and 18 while DeChambeau went to the scorer’s tent, signed for his shiny 64, then hurried on out to the range to hit balls while Schauffele’s finish appeared on a large video screen visible from DeChambeau’s station. Schauffele, still toiling and typically unexpressive out there, actually looked almost miserable.

Those last two holes didn’t refrain from howling at him. His 309-yard drive on the par-4 No. 17 barely caught a ridge of a fairway bunker and went for a trip into the sand. He cured that with a marvelous chip from 54 feet on the downslope from the green to two feet upon that green. His 325-yard drive on the par-5 No. 18 set up shop in the grass next to a fairway bunker, forcing him into an awkward stance as he smacked a 4-iron out of that.

He got that in front of the green, chipped to six feet and faced the putt into which all the other putts and all the other shots from all the seven years had flowed. Now that last putt rolled and obeyed, and the smile came barging out of the gut, and Schauffele’s father and first golf architect, Stefan, cried on the phone from Hawaii. “It made me pretty emotional,” Xander said. “I told him I had to hang up because I had to walk down. I couldn’t show up looking the way I was.”

When he got back to the 18th green for the trophy and the photos, the smile resumed and kept going. All the while the cup of the hole stayed over on one side of the green, having refrained from banishing Schauffele’s winning bid. Maybe it, too, wanted to see one whale of a smile.