Xander Schauffele close again but no cigar (or trophy) at CJ Cup

Xander Schauffele will look back at the CJ Cup at Shadow Creek as another one that got away.

Schauffele, who was seeking his fifth PGA Tour title, climbed the leaderboard with four birdies on his front nine, and shot a final-round 6-under 66. The only problem was his fellow playing competitor Jason Kokrak was having a day, making seven birdies on his first 11 holes en route to his first PGA Tour victory.

“It was a good fight,” said Schauffele, who came up two strokes short in recording his sixth runner-up finish since his last victory at the 2019 Sentry Tournament of Champions.

Indeed, it was. The third player in the grouping with Kokrak and Schauffele, who both sprinted past 54-hole leader Russell Henley, was former World No. 1 Jason Day, who withdrew with neck stiffness on the second hole.

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“Kokrak’s about a foot taller than I am, so we’re doing our old-man shuffle walking around, trying to walk as slow as possible, stall,” Schauffele said. “We talked all day. I think I was lucky and so was he, we got along really well and we definitely fed off each other and it definitely showed in our scores.”

It looked like Schauffele, World No. 8 and the more experienced of the two pros in crunch time, was destined to hoist a trophy on Sunday after he canned a 46-foot birdie putt from the fringe at No. 13 for his third straight circle on the scorecard and tied Kokrak with five holes to go. That, however, turned out to be Schauffele’s last birdie of the round.

He will certainly rue his finish on the final three holes. Schauffele made a costly bogey at the par-5 16th hole to fall out of the lead. He drove left into trouble, was forced to lay up and missed a 20-foot par putt to fall out of the lead.

“There was a woodchip underneath, kind of part of it was touching the ball,” Schauffele said of his lie on his second shot at 16. “It was one of those, if I were to pull it, my ball would have moved, so I just assumed just swing through it. There was a little branch behind me, but I think a woodchip did fly out. I didn’t really feel a whole lot of ball when I hit. It was, I don’t want to call it a bad break, but I did hit my driver in the tree well there, so all I have to do is hit the fairway and it would have been a different story.”

Schauffele overshot the par-3 17th green and had to scramble for par, and missed a 10-foot birdie putt at the last that could’ve elevated the pressure on Kokrak to close out his first win in his 232nd Tour start.

“He pushed me. It was a nice duel between the two of us,” Kokrak said. “It makes it even more special that I beat a player of Xander’s ability.”

As for Schauffele, his game remains a model of consistency as the Masters approaches. He posted 18-under 268 and notched his third consecutive top-five finish and his 10th consecutive top 25 and 21st top-25 in his past 24 starts. He also finished 20th or better in all five major Strokes Gained categories: 20th/Off the Tee, 4th/Tee to Green, 16th/Approach the Green, 5th/Around the Green, 3rd/Putting). He should be considered one of the favorites at Augusta National, where he finished tied for second last year in just his second start. Kokrak, who shot bogey-free 64 and enjoyed the best putting week of his career, had a tournament to remember. Despite the sluggish finish on Sunday, Schauffele chalked it up to a missed opportunity on Saturday when he squandered the 36-hole lead and said he’ll look at it as a learning experience.

“The biggest takeaway for me is this is the first time after two rounds of golf I had a three-shot lead. Obviously I showed it, showed a rookie move there shooting 74 on Saturday, on moving day,” he said. “But I think for me personally, just to know that my really good golf is that good, it will get me a three-, four-shot lead out here, it’s nice to know that I do have it in me to do it and hopefully I learn next time and I can create an opportunity.”

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