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Xander Schauffele, the unknown interloper on the Open leaderboard, is worth rooting for

A drunken driver robbed his dad of his Olympic dream. A trip across the world and a life change later, Stefan Schauffele’s son is closing in on his first major championship.

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PGA: U.S. Open - Second Round Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Xander Schaueffele is back in contention at a major championship. The reigning rookie of the year has come a long way since he got in the mix at last year’s U.S. Open at Erin Hills. That’s when many from the wider golf world encountered the big-hitting X-man, who has since gone on to win twice on the PGA Tour.

Xander won the season-ending Tour Championship, captured that ROY award, and has carried that over this season. He finished runner-up at The Players and then posted another top 10 at the U.S. Open. This Sunday, however, is a little different. He slept on a share of the 54-hole lead and is now playing with Jordan Spieth in the final Sunday pairing of a major championship.

He’s accomplished so much since that U.S. Open run, but with the X-man back in the spotlight of a major, it’s worth reading up on his unique background. Here’s more on that from last year’s U.S. Open.

Nearly every year, there’s an interloper among the more-known names at the U.S. Open. Jason Gore at the 2005 U.S. Open at Pinehurst comes to mind, before fellow interloper Michael Campbell won the event. Last year at Oakmont, total unknown Andrew Landry stood in the final group at 642nd in the world on Saturday afternoon. This year, it’s a big-hitting PGA Tour rookie — with an interesting story that goes back decades in German soccer.

Xander Schauffele, a 23-year-old PGA Tour rookie out of San Diego State, is one of the interlopers among a list of well-known pro names at the top of the leaderboard at Erin Hills. A first round 6-under 66 pushed the Southern California native up to the top of the board near Rickie Fowler, Brooks Koepka, and others — and a 1-over-par 73 on Friday was good enough the help him secure one of the late tee times on Saturday afternoon.

Ranked 352nd in the world, Schauffele’s struggled a bit to gain full status during his first PGA Tour season this year. His lone top-20 finish came at the fall Sanderson Farms Championship, a fifth-place finish at hardly a premier event on the schedule. Within the calendar year itself, he’s missed six cuts in 11 2017 starts. Those aren’t normally values predictive of U.S. Open success.

But what might be? His big-hitting style and his comfortability on a course that looks like Erin Hills. He ranks in the top 25 on the PGA Tour in driving distance, and he’s well above-average in the strokes-gained off the tee metric. That, plus good memories of home, are fueling Schauffele’s rise this week in Wisconsin.

PGA: U.S. Open - Second Round
Schauffele’s Thursday 66 showed his comfortability on a track that suits his San Diego eye.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

“This course reminded me a little bit of home. I went to San Diego State, and one of our home courses is Barona Creek. It’s bentgrass, and this kind of open, no-tree look.”

Schauffele comes from a family of athletes, with his grandfather playing elite-level soccer in Germany. His father was a decathlete in Germany — an Olympic hopeful even — before a drunken driving accident rendered him incapable of competing. At that point, Stefan Schauffele moved to the United States where he entered the golf business and became an assistant professional in San Diego.

If the younger Schauffele’s able to hang around, it could make for one heck of a Father’s Day storyline for the 23-year-old and his family. Stefan’s been Xander’s only swing coach throughout a brilliant amateur and young pro career — even caddying for Xander for a good chunk of his Tour career.

“It’s all been very natural,” the younger Schauffele said on Friday of his father’s teaching style. “He didn’t allow me to watch my swing on video for several years.”

But now, with his father off the bag and watching as a fan, he’ll have a chance to put himself in the history books on Sunday afternoon if he’s able to hang around. It’d be expected and normal for a player as green as Schauffele to wilt a bit in major championship pressure, but, it’s all house money at this point for the young Californian.

“I’ve got a limited schedule as a rookie on the PGA Tour, so I have nothing to lose coming out here.”