PONTE VEDRA BEACH — The ball stopped three feet short and Xander Schauffele couldn’t stop smiling. It was unclear if the smirk was because the putt had looked so good for 45 feet until it wasn’t, or that he thought he had killed it and the ball still didn’t reach the cup, or if it was just the type of reaction pros have at the end of an afternoon where they had to do everything they can to hang on for dear life against a course that’s starting to awake from its slumber. What matters is Schauffele was smiling as he went to tap in his final three feet at the 18th hole, which is something that golf hasn’t seen him do that much as of late.

Schauffele is playing well at this Players Championship, following a first-round 65 with a second-round 68, good enough to stand in a tie for second as the sun dances on the horizon Friday at TPC Sawgrass. Perhaps before we’re done we’ll get to his performance. But to appreciate where Schauffele is at the tour’s flagship event, you have to understand where he’s been.

It’s been a weird couple of years for Schauffele. Granted, it’s been a weird couple years for everyone in golf, but Schauffele especially. He’s been good, really good—sixth in the world, three wins in 2022, owner of the longest active cut streak on tour that stretched to 41 on Friday. Yet the man who was once labeled a big-game hunter has been mostly an afterthought at golf’s biggest events, with two distant T-10s in his last nine major starts, nothing of note from the past three Players Championships and a mere one point in four matches at last fall’s Ryder Cup. He’s been linked with LIV Golf, not because he necessarily has interest in the Saudi-backed circuit but because he’s been publicly critical of Commissioner Jay Monahan, which has spurred the belief that he’s a malcontent. Speaking of which, Schauffele’s father said his son was almost thrown off the Ryder Cup team over a contract dispute. Against the backdrop of golf’s civil war and the perception that many of the game’s central actors cared more about themselves than where their actions were taking the sport as a whole—coupled with rumors that the American locker room was fractured—it did not paint Schauffele in the most positive of lights. Oh, and there was that painfully awkward gambling promo.

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In a vacuum, these all have reasonable explanations. Players go through slumps. Schauffele’s far from the only person to have such opinions on Monahan; he’s just one of the few willing to air them publicly. Given the tens of millions the Ryder Cup generates, player compensation is a discussion worth having. Being on camera is tough. They are not so much controversies as they are oddities … but there sure seem to be a lot of oddities, and they’ve dented the aura of a player who once held a high approval rating from those inside the ropes and out.

And Schauffele, like many a golfer (both professional and amateur) has been fatigued by the ongoing division in golf, and that exasperation is clear when he’s asked question after question about the state of the pro game, where it’s going and how it should look. Which is why, as he was doing the same song-and-dance earlier in the week, I had to ask, With all of this (gestures wildly to everything in golf) going in, is it hard to find joy in the work? Schauffele took a second, replied, “Actually that’s not a terrible question”—which is about the nicest thing a player can say to a writer—before delivering an illuminating response.

“I love my job,” Schauffele said. “I love playing golf. So for me to come and work and mess up and then try again or hit a good shot and try and validate it, to me it’s the best job in the world.

“So if you start poking around and you can’t get any answers, I can imagine you can make your working environment pretty terrible, so I think it’s sort of how you go about it, and fortunately for me, you know, I have trust in some of the people that are leading us and hoping for a good outcome, and in the meantime, just trying to play the best golf I can play.”

Sure, even in these ridiculous times, being a professional golfer is not the most arduous of jobs. That doesn’t mean the past couple years have been enjoyable, and for a lot of folks, it’s been difficult to find passion in their profession. No matter your station in life, that sentiment is a universal truth.

Schauffele’s words came on Tuesday, and as he said himself, “words are words” that don’t mean much without action. So far this year, Schauffele is backing those words up, putting his past in the past. He’s posted four top 10s in six starts, ranked eighth in strokes gained, put himself in line to defend his gold medal at the Olympics. The good vibes have extended to this week, where he’s 36 holes away from the biggest win of his career.

Schauffele will start Saturday four shots back of Wyndham Clark. The reigning U.S. Open champ has looked unstoppable thus far, and Sawgrass is browning out and firming up. Schauffele will have his work cut out for him. But for the first time in a long time, he’s finding joy in the work.

This article was originally published on golfdigest.com