KAWAGOE, Japan – At the quietest sport at the quietest Olympics, a legion of volunteers in bucket hats and blue ombré performance wear polos held up paddles that said QUIET in Japanese on one side and English on the other. In the absence of other sensory experiences it felt like you could hear the heat — it sounded like the low drone of cicadas unless pierced by a crow — and taste the humidity — although maybe that was just the perspiration accumulating on the inside of my mask. The smell, of course, was of grass. Grass and sweat.
Five hours later, Xander Schauffele, a 27-year-old from San Diego, took home gold to applause from what was certainly one of the biggest crowds to witness an Olympic win this year. As the final group had made their way through the course, the trail of spectators grew, volunteers abandoning their posts at holes that were done for the men’s tournament.
On the 18th hole, hundreds of people (at least) held their breath as he sunk a 4-foot par putt for a 4-under 67 in the final round and hard-won victory. The throngs lined up along the rope — including dozens of volunteers holding signs advising social distancing — cheered, and someone yelled “U-S-A!”
It was his first tournament victory in two and a half years and comes after several close calls, but no wins, in major championships.
Afterward, his father and coach, Stefan Schauffele, said that he had felt nothing the whole day — until it was over.
“But now, just thinking about those moments, you know the podium … I’m choking up,” he said. The entire experience was particularly resonant for the elder Schauffele, who was an Olympic decathlon hopeful growing up until a drunk driver hit his car, leaving the then-20-year-old blind in one eye.
Xander Schauffele becomes the first American golfer to win Olympic gold since 1900 (it wasn’t contested from 1908-2012), and he started the final day atop the leaderboard, looking dominant on the front nine. And then, on the 14th hole with a two-shot lead, he drove the ball into a thicket of trees. He took an unplayable lie, thinned his third shot when he clipped a tree branch on his backswing, but escaped with a bogey after a clutch putt.
That left him tied with Rory Sabbatini, whose Olympic-record round of 61 moved him from seven shots back to gold medal contention on the final day. Sabbatini, born in South Africa and residing in the United States, represents Slovakia, the home country of his wife and caddy for the day, Martina Stofanikova.
Schauffele stayed tied with Sabbatini, who was several groups ahead of him, until the 17th hole, where a birdie gave him a one-stroke lead and solo possession of first place. Sabbatini finished with the silver medal.
If not for the pandemic barring fans (who can’t claim to be volunteers), Schauffele would have had dozens of family members in attendance. His mother, Ping-Yi Chen, was born in Taiwan but was raised in Japan.
“They’re flipping out right now,” Stefan said about the Tokyo-based side of the family.
Hideki Matsuyama, who entered the day one stroke back of Schauffele, struggled from the outset. Japan’s best hope for a men’s golf medal dabbed and then wiped his face seemingly between every swing as he shot par while his playing partners birdied on the first few holes. The assembled media and staff stayed silent, then let out a groan after he missed a short birdie putt on the fifth. When he did the same on the sixth, Matsuyama’s shoulders sagged. He guzzled water, stopped waiting for his caddy to hand him the towel, carrying it himself between holes. After he bogeyed the eighth, Matsuyama was five strokes back of Schauffele.
By the time Matsuyama birdied the ninth hole, just his second of the round, what looked to be several hundred spectators cheered a polite golf cheer. From there, the sea of blue that trailed him only grew.
In April, Matsuyama became the first Japanese man to win a major at the Masters, for which he was given the Japanese Prime Minister’s Award, just the 49th recipient. His success in the sport has made him a hero for the northern prefectures that were devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. He was a college student at Sendai’s Tohoku Fukushi University at the time, and although he had been competing in Australia during the disaster, he returned to a region in ruins. In 2016, he skipped the first Olympics to feature golf in over a century out of concern for the zika virus in Rio.
After 72 holes, Matsuyama was in seven-way tie for third. C.T. Pan of Chinese Taipei emerged victorious in the bronze medal playoff, besting British Open champion Collin Morikawa on the final hole.
The Schauffeles’ international story and the full-circle nature of Xander’s gold medal with his father, whose own Olympic aspirations were taken from him, inspired someone to ask Stefan if the family was an example of the American Dream.
“You guys do the ‘American story,’” Stefan said. “I am just living my life.”
That’s fine then, but surely the victory here, in Japan of all places, was a particularly fitting endpoint.
“Yeah, but the next Olympics are in Paris,” Stefan countered. “And I have family there, too.”
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