ERIN, Wis. — When he was young, Xander Schauffele’s soccer coaches insisted he play defense. Instead, Schauffele switched to golf.

Their loss.

The kid with the can’t-miss hand-eye coordination is doing his scoring at Erin Hills this week. The PGA Tour rookie spent part of Friday’s second round sharing the lead in the U.S. Open. He followed an opening 66 with a 73 to get to 5-under par, and finished in a tie for eighth, only two shots out of the lead.

Not bad for a U.S. Open rookie who had to go through qualifying to make it to Erin Hills.

“I think me being a little naive has almost prepared me for this situation,” said Schauffele, whose name is pronounced (SHAU-fah-leh).

Don’t let the aw-shucks stuff fool you. Pretty much everyone around him insists the arrows have long pointed toward Schauffele making it big in pro golf.

“His dad plotted this thing all the way through. He said, ‘This is what we’re doing. This is how we’re doing it,'” said Schauffele’s college coach, Ryan Donovan of San Diego State.

But soccer is the Schauffele family’s first sport.

Schauffele’s great-grandfathers each played elite-level soccer in Europe.

His father, Stefan, was an elite soccer player and decathlete, but a car accident on his way to decathlon training changed things. Among his multitude of injuries, Stefan lost sight in his left eye. With the prospect of competing for Germany out of the picture, Stefan moved to America, which is where he discovered golf.

“I said, ‘Oh, this ball doesn’t move,'” Stefan said. “I’m supposed to have some talent, so let’s see if I can do this with one eye. I had a really good teacher who equated it to throwing the javelin. It was so easy for me, it was unbelievable. It was unfair how easy it was.”

Like father, like son.

Xander’s two trips around Erin Hills have been relatively stress-free. He’s hit 22 of 28 fairways and 28 of 36 greens in regulation, and has rarely found himself in trouble. He played his first two rounds in a low-profile threesome that included amateur Cameron Champ, who also heads into the weekend at 5 under, and will pair up with Schauffele again in Saturday’s third round.

The spotlight figures to grow brighter the longer Schauffele stays near the top.

“I’ve been trying to make him laugh,” said caddie and former college teammate, Austin Kaiser, who describes his friend as the hardest-working guy he’s ever met. “I want to keep his head from getting ahead of himself. It’s easy to get ahead of yourself out there and worrying about the future too much.”

Stefan said he saw his son’s future at a young age when he tossed a soccer ball Xander’s way and Xander kept volleying it right back to him with his foot.

“He could do it at will,” Stefan said. “I had never seen that before.”

But Xander’s youth coaches wanted him on the defensive side of the field, and Xander preferred offense.

Off to the driving range they went.

“It was pretty simple,” Stefan said. “The talent is the hand-eye coordination, and that was obviously there. Where it goes from there, nobody knows. But now we’re here, so it’s all good.”

Before getting to the U.S. Open, Schauffele won the state high school championship in California and the California State Amateur Championship in 2014. He starred at San Diego State from 2013-15, and spent last season on the Web.com Tour before moving up to the PGA Tour.

Stefan says his son is doing well this week in part because Erin Hills reminds him a lot of Barona Creek Golf Club, where San Diego State played some of its home matches.

That, plus the fact that everything these days feels new for Schauffele.

“There’s mentally not much difference for him,” Stefan said. “This course is different, but every new golf course on the PGA Tour is new. It’s really just another new course, and he’s playing the PGA Tour.”

Author photo
EDDIE PELLS
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