LAKE FOREST, Ill. – Mackenzie Hughes and Xander Schauffele have been in the same boat this season during their maiden voyage on the PGA Tour.
The rookies have each had to learn to maneuver around golf courses they’d never seen while playing against the best players in the world. Figure out the best places to stay and eat in destinations they’d never visited. Face, at times, erratic schedules that had them on the road for long periods.
“Everyone knows what it’s like for rookies,” Hughes said.
But the two have more than held their own. Each won their first Tour title – Hughes at the RSM Classic last fall, Schauffele at the Greenbrier Classic in July. Each has won more than $2.3 million. Each have seven top-20s in the 2016-17 wraparound season.
And both are one good week from cashing big time at next week’s Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta. Heading into Thursday’s start of the BMW Championship at Conway Farms Golf Cub – the third event of the four in the FedExCup Playoffs – Hughes is No. 31 and Schauffele No. 32 in the standings. Only the top 30 after this week head to East Lake and have a shot at winning the $10 million bonus.
That alone turns up the pressure this week. Now add what comes with making it to East Lake – the perks. The top 30 in the standings each receive one-year exemptions into the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and Players Championship. They get into two World Golf Championships events – the Mexico Championship and the HSBC Champions. They also receive playing spots in the following invitational events – the CIMB Classic, Arnold Palmer Invitational, RBC Heritage, Dean & DeLuca Invitational, the Memorial Tournament and the Quicken Loans National.
Hughes just smiled when realizing what he’s playing for.
“You’d be lying to say you weren’t thinking about it,” Hughes said Tuesday. “But at the end of the day it’s just golf. Once I start playing I won’t be thinking about the Masters, the U.S. Open and all that stuff. And if you had told me 12 months ago that I would be at the BMW Championship playing for a spot at East Lake I would have taken it in a heartbeat. So that’s how I flip it. My glass is half full. There’s pressure, but it’s a great place to be. I’m a bubble guy this week but it’s a lot better than being No. 70 or not being here.”
The priority this year for Hughes, 31, was to secure his playing status for next season. But then he won the RSM Classic in a five-man playoff and his focus changed. While he said he’s had a so-so year where he’s played well at times but been inconsistent for the most part, his spirits remain high.
“It’s hard your first year, seeing these places for the first time, learning so much other stuff, but you just keep going,” Hughes said. “I’d love to finish the season off getting to East Lake.”
Schauffele already is exempt into the Masters and the U.S. Open. His win in the Greenbrier got him into the 2018 Masters; his tie for fifth in the U.S. Open got him into next year’s U.S. Open. But all those other perks have his attention.
“It’s huge, in terms of setting up a schedule and knowing where I’m going next year,” Schauffele, 32, said. “As a rookie and before that you’d show up at events not knowing if you’d get in or not. And you’ll get to play in the best events in the world playing against the best players in the world, and that’s what you dream of.”
In many ways Schauffele’s year turned around at the U.S. Open. Unknown to most every golf fan that week at Erin Hills in Wisconsin, Schauffele stood up to the course, the field and the pressure and tied for fifth.
“It changed my belief on the course,” he said.
So Schauffele said the pressure won’t get to him this week.
“I’ve been living on the bubble a couple years now so why not live another week on the bubble,” he said with a smile. “I’ve been on the bubble and gotten through it somehow and that makes me feel a little bit more comfortable out here. It’s a great week and I’m just trying to have fun.”
Kevin Kisner began to appreciate the value of playing in the Presidents Cup two months before the matches even started.
All because of a text message.
He was at the Bridgestone Invitational last month when he received a group text sent to players who were in position to make the U.S. team. The idea was to make everyone feel like a team, whether the exchange of messages was motivational or simply amusing.
Kisner is among the more popular figures in the locker room, but there were still a few numbers in that group text that he didn’t recognize. He wasn’t alone, mainly because the guy who started the thread — U.S. captain Steve Stricker — put in the wrong number for Charley Hoffman. And that soon became clear to everyone.
“Some dude told us he didn’t care and to quit texting him,” Kisner said.
Kisner is among five players who have never played in a Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup team, the most since five players experienced their first professional team competition at the 2010 Ryder Cup team in Wales.
The Ryder Cup and the Presidents Cup are not on the same level when it comes to history or hype, pressure or publicity.
But there’s no difference for those trying to be part of it.
That’s why Brooks Koepka wore himself out in the summer of 2015 by playing eight times in nine weeks in a desperate bid to make the Presidents Cup. He missed out and didn’t make his team debut until the following year at the Ryder Cup.
There are varying levels of acceptance on the PGA Tour, which starts with winning a tournament. Players also are looked upon differently when they’re part of a U.S. team, especially when it becomes a habit.
“It’s kind of like the good ol’ boys club, if that makes sense,” Koepka said. “You learn so much about each other, but you know them on a personal level. It seems like out here, it’s more like, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ You’re playing with them, and that’s about it. But you never get into any real interesting conversations or whatever it might be. Now you sit down for lunch, you know the names and ages of their kids. I didn’t have that before the Ryder Cup.”
He never had many phone numbers, either.
Those chain texts from the Ryder Cup spilled into this year, though Koepka remembers the first one. At the time, the only numbers he had belonged to Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Matt Kuchar.
“All these numbers popped up and I was like, ‘Who’s this one?'” he said.
One of the mysteries was Bubba Watson, added as a vice captain at Hazeltine. Koepka and Watson would seem to have next to nothing in common except that they hit the golf ball a long way. Now they stay in touch regularly.
“We FaceTime once a week, even during golf weeks,” Koepka said. “He called Christmas Day and my mom answered the phone. He said, ‘Who’s this?'”
Tiger Woods was among the top players who once lamented that Americans had to play team matches every year, while Europeans and the International team (every country except those in Europe) had a cup every other year. But that was mainly because the Americans kept losing every other year.
To watch Woods during those weeks was to realize it was among his favorite weeks of the year because of the relationships that were forged. He will be one of Stricker’s assistant captains at Liberty National at the end of the month. The Presidents Cup is not anything to miss in a year plagued by his fourth back surgery and his struggles with painkillers that led to Florida police finding him asleep in his parked car and disoriented in the middle of the night.
It was at the Ryder Cup last year where players presented Woods with red T-shirts that said, “Make Tiger Great Again.” It hasn’t worked, but those kinds of moments can be more lasting than any shot struck during the competition.
That’s what awaits Kisner and Hoffman, Justin Thomas, Daniel Berger and Kevin Chappell.
Berger got a taste of it last year when he and Thomas were invited to Hazeltine with several Ryder Cup members to play the course in case they were the final captain’s pick of Davis Love III. Also on that trip were Phil Mickelson, Brandt Snedeker and Spieth, players who had been part of other teams.
“When you see those guys up there, you want to be part of that group,” Berger said. “It means you’re one of the best 12 Americans. It was one of those experiences that was like, ‘I want to be part of that.’ I don’t want to miss one of these ever.”
The text messages already are flowing. Koepka only has numbers from last year’s Ryder Cup team or the players living near him in South Florida. He didn’t have Kisner’s number until recently.
One word of advice for Koepka: If he gets a call from a number that looks like it might belong to Hoffman, don’t answer.