SHANGHAI: Xander Schauffele bagged the biggest victory of his young career on Sunday, chasing down Tony Finau to win a nail-biting WGC-HSBC Champions in a play-off.
Schauffele, the 2017 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year who celebrated his 25th birthday on opening-round Thursday, started the final round three strokes behind fellow American Finau at a windy Sheshan International Golf Club in Shanghai.
Schauffele had some early wobbles but closed strong, including crucial birdies on the final two holes to record the lowest score of the day — a four-under 68 — catching Finau to force the play-off.
Replaying the par-five 18th in sudden-death, Finau handed Schauffele the advantage when his tee shot leaked into a fairway bunker.
Schauffele reached the green in two, and Finau faced a do-or-die birdie putt from the fringe of the green, which just missed.
Schauffele’s win comes with a $1.8 million victor’s purse and moves him atop the standings in the young FedEx Cup 2018-2019 season.
– No fluke –
It also helps put to rest notions that his 2017 rookie season, in which Schauffele won twice — the Greenbrier Classic and Tour Championship — was a fluke.
“Last season, I really wanted to win to justify my rookie year and wasn’t able to do that,” he said.
“People can say whatever they want but my team and I, we know we are doing the right things.”
Down a stroke going to the tee of the par-3 17th in regulation, Schauffele birdied to move level with Finau and walk to the final hole tied at 13 under par.
Both hit outstanding approaches to reach the green on the par-5 hole in two, and each sank birdie putts to finish the 72 holes in 14 under and set up the playoff.
Schauffele, Finau and playing partner Justin Rose, the defending champion, had pulled away from the field over the back nine, making it essentially a three-man tournament.
But Rose, the world number three who could have returned to number one with a win, faltered late and finished four strokes back at 10 under.
It was a harsh disappointment for the long-hitting, 29-year-old Finau, who was impressive all week and lead after the second and third rounds.
Of Samoan and Tongan descent, Finau is the first player of that ancestry on the PGA Tour and the first Polynesian to play in the Ryder Cup, where he provided a rare bright spot as a USA captain’s pick in last month’s crushing loss to Europe.
His only PGA win so far was the 2016 Puerto Rico Open.
But Finau, along with Schauffele, has become a player to watch, recording 11 top-10 finishes in 2018, including at three majors, and his Ryder Cup performance.
Finau was world number 17 before the WGC-HSBC Champions, to Schauffele’s 19th.
“(I) definitely feel like I let one get away. Xander played incredible golf,” said Finau.
“He posted a number and made birdie on a playoff hole when it counted. Hats off him to. He played nicely today and deserved to win.”
The tournament, dubbed “Asia’s major”, annually gathers a premier field with its winner’s purse of $1.8 million.
But aside from Rose, several of the world’s top golfers struggled in the unpredictable winds that buffeted the lengthy par-72 Sheshan course.
World number one Brooks Koepka shot a 69 on Sunday to finish at two under, second-ranked Dustin Johnson finished at three over, and four-time Major winner Rory McIlroy managed even par only once in Shanghai to finish at 10 over par. —AFP