Schauffele the unlikeliest winner of the Tour Championship

It was every bit of 360 degrees.

A full circle.

Geometry at its most fundamental.

Xander Schauffele watched as his career-changing putt traveled every inch of the 18th hole. When it finally fell – succumbing to the law of gravity – the relatively unknown golfer had a birdie and a Tour Championship victory. Schauffele finished at 12-under par at East Lake Golf Club Sunday for a one-shot win over Justin Thomas. It was the second victory for the rookie who one year ago was playing in the Tour playoffs just to earn his PGA Tour card.

“I thought it missed, that’s why I couldn’t even react to celebrate because I thought I just missed a two-footer to win,” Schauffele said. “… To watch it do a Ring around the Rosie and watch it go to the bottom of the cup, I feel very fortunate because I thought I missed it.”

His name is pronounced Zan-der Shaw-fa-lee. You’ll likely need to remember it. The 24-year old is the first rookie to win the Tour Championship and he has game.

The grandest of prizes went to Thomas. The soon-to-be-crowned Player of the Year finished second at 11-under par, with birdies on two of the final three holes, in the finale of the FedEx Cup playoffs. He jumped the one spot over leader Jordan Spieth in the final point standings to claim the $10 million bonus.

“It’s awesome just because I feel like I played so well this year,” said Thomas, who won five times this season including his first major with the PGA Championship. “I was consistent. I mean, a lot of great weeks and great memories even. Life-changing events that just kind of ended with another kind of life-changing thing for me. To just have my name on the trophy with the rest of those guys is pretty awesome.”

It is the first time since 2009 that the FedEx Cup and Tour Championship titles were won by different players when Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, respectively, took home different trophies.

Schauffele, ranked 66th in the world, shot a 2-under par 68 to capture the Tour Championship title and a $1.575 million first-place check when that putt of two feet, five inches finally dropped. Add $2 million for a third-place finish in the final FedEx Cup standings. The day’s earnings of $3.6 million nearly matched the $4.3 million from his previous 28 tour events. Schauffele, who won the Greenbrier Classic earlier this season, has two wins, three top-10 and 10 top-25 finishes in his debut.

Just one year ago, Schauffele earned $149,292 on the Tour. He missed his PGA Tour card by less than $100 as he finished 26th in the standings, one spot short of an automatic berth. However, he earned his card by finishing 15th in the tour playoffs.

Just look at where he is now.

Schauffele advanced through the PGA Tour playoffs in dramatic fashion. He shot 6-under par on the final six holes of the BMW Championship to move from 32nd to 26th in the point standings, a jump of more than the two spots necessary to make the field of 30 in the season-ending event. He finished the final playoff standings in third, behind Thomas and Spieth, from his distant starting position. As part of a seven-sequence scenario, Spieth needed to finish in a three-way tie for 23rd and Thomas in a tie for seventh or worse for the Schauffele to win the FedEx Cup with the tournament victory. Spieth finished tied for seventh at 7-under par.

Kevin Kisner, fresh off a return from watching his University of Georgia win a college football game over Mississippi State Saturday night via a helicopter ride, was tied with Schauffele at 10-under par headed into the final round. They trailed leader Paul Casey by two strokes. Kisner finished tied for third with his Bulldog brethren Russell Henley after an even-par round. Most of his title hopes were dashed by back-to-back bogeys on Nos. 10 and 11. Casey dropped to fifth place with a 3-over par final round. In the past 30 Tour Championships, 19 third-round leaders went on to victory. However, the Englishman was done in by back-to-back bogeys on Nos. 4 and 5. His lone birdie of the day came on the final hole, too little and too late.

Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm and Marc Leishman, who along with Thomas and Spieth controlled their FedEx Cup playoff fates, were never in contention.

Schauffele said he didn’t look at the leaderboard until he finished the par-3 15th, the hole surrounded by water that swallowed both Kisner and Casey in the final round. That’s when he knew he led by a stroke. He had an inkling he was among the leaders well before.

“I think I was the second-worst ranked player in the field so when you have all the Golf Channel and NBC Golf guys on you the entire round, I had a feeling I was right up there,” Schauffele said. “That’s why I didn’t feel a need to look at the leaderboard to know exactly where I was at.”

He would need the final putt to drop to break a tie with Thomas, who had finished with a par just one group before, and exceed his every expectation.

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