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Xander and Champ: Who Are These Guys on the Leader Board?

June 16, 2017 Erin, Wis. By Dave Shedloski
Xander Schauffele (right) and playing partner Cameron Champ are in the mix through 36 holes at the U.S. Open. (USGA/John Gress)

It’s not pedigree that determines success in the U.S. Open but precision, which is why the likes of Rory McIlroy and Jason Day, ranked No. 2 and No. 3 in the world, respectively, are going home early and Xander Schauffele and Cameron Champ occupy the first page of the leader board.

True, you might not have heard of the latter pair, but they have several things in common, including their California roots. They each are playing in their first U.S. Open after getting through sectional qualifying. Oh, and they each completed 36 holes in the 117th championship in 5-under 139, which at the time they finished left them just two strokes behind the leaders.

Playing together in the same threesome with Trey Mullinax, Schauffele and Champ took different routes to their appointed tie, with the former shooting a 1-over 73 on Friday and the latter, an amateur out of Texas A&M University, blasting his way to a 3-under 69.

“Yeah, we were working off of each other,” said Champ, of Sacramento, who arguably possesses one of the best surnames in golf. “It’s always nice to have someone in the group like that that’s playing well. You feed off of each other.”

Schauffele, a PGA Tour rookie ranked 352nd in the world, didn’t know about feeding off his playing partner. He was busy watching him gobble up yardage with his prodigious drives.

“Man, that kid is just super long off the tee, and he’s always on the fairway,” said Schauffele, of San Diego. “With that combination, this course is incredibly set up for him. I feel like I’m not the shortest guy. I think the stats don’t say I’m the shortest guy, and I can’t even sniff where he’s hitting the ball. He’s very impressive.”

Long-hitting amateur Cameron Champ is having a dream birthday week so far. (USGA/Darren Carroll)

One of just two amateurs to make the cut along with 2013 U.S. Junior Amateur champion Scottie Scheffler, Champ, who celebrated his 22nd birthday on Thursday, is averaging 339 yards off the tee, 22 yards more than Schauffele. He doesn’t know quite how he generates such power from his 6-foot frame. “I just naturally have done it since I was 15 or 16,” said Champ, who was introduced to golf by his grandfather when he was 2 years old. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten a little farther, but a lot straighter. When I was younger it went everywhere. That didn’t work out too well.”

Champ was still digesting his station on the leader board while better-known names were going home. But in truth he is not surprised by his performance. He played practice rounds with McIlroy, the 2011 U.S. Open champion, and Louis Oosthuizen, winner of the 2010 Open Championship at St. Andrews. He was blowing drives past them, too.

“Just to see their games and how they play, I’ve grown up watching them. And I can hit those shots,” he said. “Obviously, they’ve been in this position many more times than I have. They’ve won major championships. So just kind of gave me a confidence boost, knowing that I can hit those shots.”

Schauffele, 23, felt like he played equally well on Friday as he did during his impressive opening 66 that left him one behind the first-round leader, Rickie Fowler. “Today, I felt like I played the exact same way as I did yesterday. The wind was up a little bit, couple of trickier pins. I just didn’t make as many putts. That’s kind of what it came down to. But I probably had closer looks today than I did yesterday.”

Speaking of looks, his efforts on Thursday made him somewhat of an overnight sensation. His name was one of the top trending items on Twitter. He also found his phone bombarded with messages, including a good-luck note from his sixth-grade science teacher, Mr. Finley.

Fame in the information age.

Taught by his father, Stefan, Schauffele has three top-25 finishes on the PGA Tour, but that is nothing compared to this stage. What has prepared him for this moment?

“I think me being a little naive has almost prepared me for this situation. Just coming in blue-eyed, really,” he said with a shrug. “Yesterday was a bonus round for me. I qualified for this a couple Mondays ago. I have a limited schedule as a rookie on the PGA Tour, so I have nothing to lose coming out here.”

That’s one more thing the two young men have in common.

Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to USGA websites.