[PHOTO: Michael Reaves]

From the moment Xander Schauffele, winner of the 2024 PGA Championship, picked up a golf club he was a chaser. Compared to some of his athletic peers, he got a late start to the game, first choosing soccer until he got disgusted with not being able to fully control the results. Unfortunately, he couldn’t play forward, back and goalie all at the same time.

As a fledgling golfer, Schauffele did not set the highly competitive junior scene in San Diego on fire. He wasn’t a factor on the national tours because his father, Stefan, considered the big-time junior circuits a “money grab” and “they make these kids feel entitled by blowing smoke up their a–”. In the same high school class as Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas, Schauffele was lightly recruited for college, first going to Long Beach State University before transferring back home to San Diego State, where he won just one tournament.

All along the way, Stefan Schauffele was there to provide constant reality checks with touches of sly motivation. “He bred an underdog mentality into me from a younger age: ‘You need to go get it, because nothing is going to be handed to you,'” Xander has said.

That attitude has served Schauffele incredibly well in his pro career, considering that, at 30, he had seven PGA Tour victories before this week and wore US colours three times in international cups. But even as he rose to be a top-five player in the world, Schauffele had to shed being the grinder and learn to lead. Too many times, and particularly in majors, he had been on the cusp of a defining breakthrough, only to see others seize the moment. Two runner-ups, a pair of thirds and 12 top-10s among 27 major starts were the proof.

The opportunity came again on Sunday in the steamy hills of Kentucky. A first-round 62 that tied the all-time record for a lowest round in a major championship set up Schauffele to hold at least a share of the lead for three rounds heading into the final-day test. The question for all who questioned Schauffele’s finishing skills was could he wrap one up? The answer came in the most convincing fashion.

Unrattled by a couple of quirky breaks on the final two holes, Schauffele rolled in a six-foot birdie putt on Valhalla’s ever-thrilling par-5 18th to shooting a closing six-under-par 65 and beat Bryson DeChambeau by one shot. DeChambeau, the 2020 US Open champion, threw everything at Schauffele, posting a 64 that included his own birdie at 18.

PGA Championship 2024: On an island thousands of kilometres away, Stefan Schauffele bawled after his son’s breakthrough win

It was the kind of pressure Schauffele endured that will no doubt make the triumph more satisfying – as will the fact that his 21-under-par 263 total at par-71 Valhalla is the lowest score ever in any major. The victory moves Schauffele to No.2 in the Official World Golf Ranking – his highest position – and also guaranteed he will be in Paris in July to try to defend the Olympic gold medal he won in Japan three years ago.

Yes, this day was more than worth the wait.

“I’ve become very patient not knocking off any wins in the past couple of years,” Schauffele said. “The people closest to me know how stubborn I can be. Winning is a result. This is awesome. It’s super-sweet.”

Only a week ago, Schauffele was stinging from a difficult final day in the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow. He led by two shots over Rory McIlroy to start the final round, but got steamrolled when the Irishman shot 65 while Schauffele could only answer with a 71. “Poor Xander, couldn’t close again,” seemed to be the general refrain.

At that point, it was close to two years since Schauffele last lifted a trophy, at the 2022 Genesis Scottish Open. Wells Fargo could have been a crushing blow to his confidence the week before a major, but Schauffele insisted he only used others’ doubts as motivation.

Photo: Andy Lyons

“Definitely a chip on the shoulder there,” he admitted. “It just is what it is at the end of the day. You guys are asking the questions, probing, and I have to sit here and answer it. It’s a lot easier to answer it with this thing (the Wanamaker Trophy) sitting next to me now, obviously.

“It’s just fuel, fuel to my fire. It always has been growing up, and it certainly was leading up to this.”

Xander’s dad, Stefan, who has been at his side for tournaments most of his career, was not at Valhalla this week, but on the island of Kauai tending to the family’s property there. But the two were in contact all week, and on Saturday night Stefan sent Xander a text with a German proverb he had dished out numerous times before. Translated, Stefan said on Sunday by phone, the phrase is, “Steady dripping caves the stone.”

“It means stick with it,” Stefan said. “Be persistent. Be tenacious. See through your course.”

Schauffele did that all week at Valhalla. He opened with that 62, becoming the first golfer to shoot that score more than once in a major, and then shot back-to-back 68s that he would admit were more grinding than artful. On Sunday, Schauffele began the day tied at the top at 15-under with two-time major winner Collin Morikawa – one of his peers who was perceived as more successful on the big stages, even if he contended on them far less than Schauffele.

“My goal was to get to 22 [under] today,” Schauffele said. “I told Austin [Keiser, his caddie] when we turned, if I could get to 22, I think someone is going to have to beat me.”

He would have gotten there if, after shooting an impressive 31 on the front, he didn’t suffer a sloppy bogey at the par-5 10th by driving into a bunker, misfiring a wood out of that sand and ultimately missing a makeable par putt.

There was damage that came with the bogey, too, as a hot-handed Viktor Hovland charged with four birdies in six holes to briefly overtake Schauffele. But an immediate response came, with Schauffele making birdies at the 11th and 12th to regain control.

“I’ve made a stupid bogey before, and I’ve hit a really good shot after that,” Schauffele said. “Today I finally made those putts. I finally had enough pace or it lipped in or whatever you want to call it; it was my moment, and I was able to capitalise on some good iron shots coming in.

“In those moments, you can kind of feel it, and in the past when I didn’t do it, it just wasn’t there, and today I could feel that it was there.”

Schauffele wouldn’t relinquish the lead, but as he was making a good scrambling par at 17 after his ball barely kicked into a fairway bunker, Hovland and DeChambeau both had birdie bids to tie him at 18. DeChambeau converted from 11 feet, pumping his fist wildly, but Hovland’s 10-footer turned just before the hole and stayed out. The Norwegian ended up shooting 66 and was third.

Schauffele needed a birdie at 18 to win, but that looked dicey after his drive ended up just above the left fairway bunker, forcing him to stand on a steep slope in the sand and choke down on his 4-iron.

“I just kept telling myself, ‘Man, someone out there is making me earn this right now,’” he said. “I just kept grinding. I get up there and just kind of chuckled. I was like, If you want to be a major champion, this is the kind of stuff you have to deal with. So I dealt with it, and happily was able to push that thing up. My only concern was sort of shanking it from more of a baseball swing.”

His approach came up short and left, 33 metres from the pin, and Schauffele hit a solid pitch, but he ended up at the most nerve-wracking of distances – short enough to be confident, but long enough to stir doubt.

This time, he didn’t miss when it mattered the most, even if his ball toured half the edge of the cup before falling in. Schauffele looked up to the skies in what looked like a mix of joy and total relief.

The chase was over.