KAWAGOE, Japan – Xander Schauffele is your gold medalist, fulfilling his family’s Olympic dreams and winning in the same country where his mother grew up. It was a victory that was special for several reasons. Before departing Japan, here are five things to know about this year’s Olympic men’s golf competition.
1. SCHAUFFELE SHUTS THE DOOR
It wasn’t just that Schauffele won the gold medal. It was how he did it. Schauffele has held a 54-hole lead four times in his PGA TOUR career. He hasn’t converted any of them into wins.
He started the final round at Kasumigaseki with a one-stroke lead over home favorite Hideki Matsuyama and, while there were some tense moments after his bogey on the par-5 14th, was able to win the gold. He clinched victory with a clutch up-and-down on 18 after hitting a 98-yard wedge shot to 5 feet.
“I needed to get over the hump,” Schauffele said about finishing off a 54-hole lead.
His four PGA TOUR wins have all come in comeback fashion. He trailed by an average of 3.3 shots entering the final round in each of those wins. He’s shot a final-round 68 or better in each win, including a Sunday 62 in the 2019 Sentry Tournament of Champions, which is his most recent TOUR win.
While he hadn’t won in 2 ½ years, his consistency has been impressive. He has 30 top-25 finishes in his last 36 TOUR starts. His 13 top-3 finishes over the last three seasons are second only to Justin Thomas (14).
Schauffele also has nine top-10s in 18 majors since 2017. One of those was a painful loss in this year’s Masters to Matsuyama. Schauffele birdied four straight holes on Augusta National’s second nine before hitting his tee shot into the water at the par-3 16th. Matsuyama and Schauffele were together again in the final group Sunday, but this time Schauffele got the better of him.
“As a competitor, personally it’s always important to take the next step and I was kind of stuck in a gear over-thinking, over-complicating certain moments,” Schauffele said Sunday. “So if you put just everything aside for me personally this is a big deal just to pull through while having the lead since I have never done it before.”
2. FAMILY TIES
It’s hard to discuss Schauffele’s Olympic performance without mentioning his family. His great-grandfather, Richard Schauffele, was one of Germany’s track and field athletes but missed the Olympics with a shoulder injury. Xander’s father, Stefan, was an aspiring decathlete whose athletic career was ended by a drunk driver.
While golf’s major championships stand alone, the Schauffeles’ connections to both the Olympics and Japan (his grandparents still live in Tokyo) definitely made this a title that Xander desired.
“I maybe put more pressure on myself to go win this more than anything else for quite some time,” Xander said. “It was more than just golf for me and I’m just really, really happy and fortunate to be sitting here.”
The experience of handling this pressure should bode well for Schauffele, who’s become a consistent contender in majors but is seeking his first victory in one.
3. DIFFERENT STROKES
There have been calls for a different format ever since golf was added to the Olympic catalog. There is no shortage of 72-hole events in professional golf, so the desire is understandable. Team formats, especially in match play, have their inherent drama on every hole. We’ve seen it in everything from the NCAA Championship to the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup. A team format also raises the possibility of a mixed format where men and women compete alongside each other.
Those are all good things, but I would hesitate before tossing stroke play aside. Individiual accomplishments are important to the top players. They’re the primary way legacies are measured. Standing alone atop the podium was special for Schauffele.
“What does it mean to win a gold medal? It means you’re the champion,” Schauffele said Sunday. “It means you beat everybody. For me specifically, I don’t play golf for money or medals, in all honesty, I just play to be competitive and I want to beat everyone. So for this week I’m lucky enough to be sitting here with these boys, but I’m also lucky enough to be the No. 1 player to beat everyone. So that’s what it means to me.”
For those who say that stroke play is too predictable, consider that the silver and bronze medalist were both ranked outside the top 200 in the world ranking.
4. CHANGE OF HEART
Even though he left Japan empty-handed, Rory McIlroy was among the players whose Olympic experience exceeded their expectations.
“It makes me even more determined going to Paris and trying to pick one up,” McIlroy said about an Olympic medal. “To be up there in contention for a medal certainly had a different feeling to it than I expected.”
Even though it meant a longer commute, many golfers enjoyed staying in or near the Olympic Village and fraternizing with other athletes. Members of the U.S. team spent time with the U.S. basketball team. Tommy Fleetwood was invited to a sparring session with Great Britain’s boxers. Abraham Ancer roomed with the Mexican boxing team, while Carlos Ortiz was with the country’s equestrians. McIlroy was excited to watch the dressage, which he called “mesmerizing.”
He told his wife, Erica, that the Olympics showed him that he should give new experiences an opportunity instead of entering them with a cynical mindset.
“I need to give things a chance,” McIlroy said. “Maybe I shouldn’t be so skeptical. I think I need to do a better job of just giving things a chance, experiencing things, not writing them off at first glance. That’s sort of a trait of mine, but I’m happy to be proven wrong. I was proven wrong at the Ryder Cup, I’ve been proven wrong this week and I’m happy that, I’m happy to say that.”
Playing alongside countryman Shane Lowry in the third round only enhanced McIlroy’s experience. They’ve known each other since their amateur days, helping Ireland to the 2007 European Team Championship. Teaming with Lowry, in a tournament with no prize money and having his clubs carried in a small stand bag all reminded McIlroy back to his amateur days.
“It’s just been a throwback to the good old days when we didn’t play for money,” McIlroy said. “It was great. It was a really enjoyable week and I hope we both make it for Paris again in three years’ time and have another good crack at it.”
5. HIDEKI’S HEARTBREAK
Ever since Hideki Matsuyama won the Masters, attention turned to his gold medal quest. The Olympics were being held in his home country and on a course that is very special to him. He won the 2009 Japan Junior and 2010 Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship at Kasumigaseki Country Club. The latter earned him his first Masters invitation.
The Olympics also were Matsuyama’s first tournament since contracting COVID-19, however, and it seemed he was still feeling the effects. He hadn’t played a tournament in four weeks and his endurance was lacking. Japan’s captain, Shigeki Maruyama, said it’s been “night and day” since Matsuyama’s battle with the virus. The high heat that players faced all week didn’t help.
Still, Matsuyama fought for a medal. No spectators were allowed at Kasumigaseki but by Sunday he was trailed by hundreds of volunteers, media and athletes. He just missed a birdie putt on the final green that would have given him the bronze, then fell in a seven-man playoff for the third medal.
“I have no energy or endurance left at this point,” Matsuyama said. “But I kept fighting at the end with my heart.”
That’s the Olympic spirit.