AUGUSTA, Ga. — Xander Schauffele had Hideki Matsuyama bloodied and on the ropes, all but waiting for the sweeping right hook that would end the fight. They were standing on the 16th tee, right after Matsuyama had put his most recent approach shot into the drink. Right after Schauffele had made four birdies in a row to cut a four-shot lead to two.
With all the momentum, and still behind on the judges’ cards, Schauffele went for the knockout on the iconic par-3, where Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus had hit the signature shots of their epic Masters careers.
“I was coming in hot,” Schauffele said. “I was feeling good.”
He chose an 8-iron from 184 yards out, and let it fly.
“I hit a perfect shot,” Schauffele said.
Augusta National has a long history of funneling perfect shots into imperfect endings. This one got eaten up by a diabolical wind, sending it bouncing down a slope and into the pond. Schauffele had thrown the big punch, and ended up flat on his back.
“I hit a good shot,” he would say after his triple bogey at 16 ultimately landed him three strokes behind Matsuyama’s winning score of 10-under 278. “I committed to it. It turned out bad. I’ll be able to sleep tonight. I might be tossing and turning, but I’ll be OK.”
As the world’s sixth-ranked player, and the highest-ranked player on the leaderboard entering the round, Schauffele was searching for his breakthrough moment from four strokes back. Before the round, his coach at Scripps Ranch High School in San Diego, Mikel Moran, was on the phone talking about his former player’s competitiveness, and how he once raced a cross-country team member down the ninth fairway at Torrey Pines (and beat him) to settle a tied golf match and win a free serving of onion rings.
“A great kid,” Moran said, “with a work ethic that told you he was never going to be denied.”
The coach texted his former player Saturday night to remind him to have fun in this final-round battle with Matsuyama. After a brutal start to the round that left the 27-year-old Schauffele seven strokes behind the leader, he finally started having some of that fun. Matsuyama was rock solid for most of the afternoon — “He was like a robot,” Schauffele said — but gave his chaser a huge opening with his inexplicable mistake at 15.
And then Schauffele, a four-time PGA Tour winner, went for the kill in pursuit of his first major championship. He had finished in the top ten in half of his 14 major starts, and had fallen one shot short of Tiger Woods in the 2019 Masters, and suddenly he was ready to slide into that green jacket. At least until his tee shot dribbled into the drink.
“Oh … My … God,” shouted one fan near the tee box after the ball disappeared.
“I fought hard,” Schauffele said. “I felt I made it exciting at the end. … I hit a perfect shot. We thought [the wind] was down left to right. It was not down left to right, and the rest is history.”