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Phoenix Open: Like clockwork, Xander Schauffele's name is high on leaderboard

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale is infamous for its 16,000 rowdy fans making the fully-enclosed hole a Colosseum of sorts. But not this year. When Matthew NeSmith chipped an 8-iron to six inches at the par 3 hole, he heard all of six claps.

“I made the quietest almost hole-in-one ever at 16,” he said.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions and social distancing requirements, only about 5,000 fans per day are being permitted to attend the Waste Management Phoenix Open, where crowds topping 250,000 for Saturday’s third round has become the norm. The tournament affectionately known as “the people’s open,” is missing its masses.

“When there’s a lot of people it almost becomes white noise,” said Xander Schauffele. “Out here I chunked my chip and some guys was like, ‘Dang, he duffed it.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, you’re right, I just duffed the crap out of that chip.’ You can kind of hear certain small comments more, which when you show up here you know exactly what you’re walking into, but it is weird the overall sort of quietness here. It is strange to me.”

Waste Management Phoenix Open: Photos | Leaderboard

What is becoming clockwork is seeing Schauffele’s name on the first page of the leaderboard. He carded seven birdies en route to a 5-under 66 and sits three strokes behind NeSmith, who fired a bogey-free 63, and Mark Hubbard, who sank a 20-foot birdie putt at the last.

Schauffele’s become the Tour’s “Mr. Consistency,” recording 16 top-25 finishes in 18 starts last season and hasn’t finished worse than T-17 in six starts this season, with two seconds among them, including last week at the Farmers Insurance Open, which helped him improve to a career-best of No. 4 in the Official World Golf Ranking.

“I want to be like Xander,” said Tour pro Joel Dahmen. “Thursday to Sunday he’s the same guy. It’s very impressive. He has a plan and he sticks to it.”

All that’s missing for Schauffele, 27, is a trophy to hoist. He’s been stuck on four career victories since the Sentry Tournament of Champions more than two years ago. With each passing close call, Schauffele’s level of frustration grows.

“The ultimate goal is winning and it kind of just dangles right in front of you every tournament, and you just try your best,” he said. “I’ve knocked on the door a few times and kind of messed up and choked, I guess, if you want to call it that. But just try to learn from every moment.”

When asked if he thinks he’s choked, Schauffele didn’t mince words.

“I have at certain times,” he said. “I’m trying to just get to a level where when I know I’m playing really well, I can win. I don’t know if my game is quite there yet to where I can show up to a course and really feel like I’m 100 percent that I’m going to win this tournament. There’s a lot of variables that come into play.”

On a sun-splashed opening round, Schauffele’s putter was on fire. He canned five birdies in a six-hole stretch beginning at No. 17 and one-putted each hole in that span on his way to making over 100 feet of putts for the day. That included a beautiful 28-foot right-to-left birdie putt at No. 4 that broke back to the cup at the end and dropped.

NeSmith tied his career low with 63. He took a short-game lesson on Monday and it paid quick dividends. He holed a bunker shot on 13 for eagle and chipped in from over the sixth green for birdie.

“I don’t know what’s going on the last couple of days, but I’m very grateful for it,” he said.

NeSmith, 27, and Hubbard, 31, are both winless on Tour. They lead Nate Lashley, a 38-year-old University of Arizona product who calls Scottsdale home, and Sam Burns by one stroke.

Former champions Brooks Koepka made seven birdies in shooting 68, while Rickie Fowler carded four consecutive bogeys and will have his work cut out to make the 36-hole cut after 3-over 74. Rory McIlroy was 3-over par after his first two holes but rallied to shoot 1-under 70 in his Phoenix Open debut.

“It was a good battle back,” he said.

original article link https://golfweek.usatoday.com/2021/02/04/phoenix-open-xander-schauffeles-first-round-66/

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