There is not much about the life of a tour pro that a layperson can relate to. Joe Average cannot hit a 200-yard 6-iron or nip a spinner off a tight lie. He has never flown on a private jet. He does not get recognised. The superstar life is, in most contexts, a hyper-specific experience.
And yet, underneath the wealth and fame lie normal people with normal human emotions – like wanting to make your pop’s dream come true. Of course, Xander Schauffele wanted to win an Olympic gold medal for himself. But he really, really wanted to win one for his dad, Stefan, whose own Olympic decathlon aspirations died when his car was struck by a drunk driver.
On Sunday, the younger Schauffele did what his dad never could: He won gold. And he did so in Japan, where his mother grew up and his grandparents still live. An up-and-down par from 98 yards on the final hole capped off a final-round 67, which was good for a one-shot victory over Rory Sabbatini of Slovakia – well, at least recently “of Slovakia” – who closed with a brilliant 61 hours before the leaders headed for the home stretch. C.T. Pan of Chinese Taipei took the bronze after winning a seven-man, four-hole playoff.
“It’s special,” Schauffele said. “That’s a word that’s thrown around a lot, especially for us golfers. I mean it’s so different for us, we’re used to playing for money and we play a normal schedule, and this is every four years and it’s just kind of a different feel to it. And you’re wearing your country’s colours and everyone’s just trying to represent to the best of their ability. So it does have that sort of special and different feel.
“To have my dad here as well is really special. I gave him a hug off the back of the green there. I know this means a lot to him, so I’m just happy to sort of deliver this.”
This was quite a day for the tightly-knit Schauffele clan. Stefan is the only golf coach Xander’s ever had. He is a ubiquitous presence at PGA Tour events, often wearing linen shirts and fashionable hats that would play quite well in the Hamptons. The Schauffele boys emanate a sense of California chill – Xander grew up near San Diego – and Xander needed every bit of that calmness on Sunday, when in an instant a stroll to glory morphed into a struggle for survival.
Schauffele began the day with a one-shot lead over local hero Hideki Matsuyama, seeking to cement himself in Japanese lore by adding a home gold to his green jacket. The American played the first five holes in three-under and briefly led by as many as four shots before Sabbatini kept on pushing the tempo. He wasn’t the only one; nine of the 60 players in the field shot 65 or better, including a 63 from Collin Morikawa and a 65 from Justin Thomas. This was Major championship pressure with John Deere scoring.
His cushion was down to one as Schauffele stepped to the last par 5 at Kasumigaseki Country Club, the reachable 14th. He fanned his first drive into a forest well right of the fairway. Provisional time. As one does, he over-compensated and badly hooked his re-load. Every golfer’s been there. Your first drive might be lost, and the provisional wasn’t much better. Just like that, a round-busting big number has entered the picture.
Schauffele owes a great deal to whoever found his original ball, for he wouldn’t have the gold medal around his neck if not for that person. With the ball located, Schauffele was able to take an unplayable lie, punch back into play, punch out again into the fairway, then get up-and-down for the best bogey of his life. Still, his lead had fully evaporated, and a swaggering Matsuyama was a single shot behind.
Ultimately, Matsuyama’s chances faded by way of body blows: a three-putt bogey at 15, missing a good birdie look at 16 and missing another at the drivable par-4 17th. After watching Matusyama’s birdie effort miss left on 17, Schauffele poured his right in the centre to reclaim his lead for good over Sabbatini.
Schauffele wasn’t out of the woods yet, though, for his very next shot quite literally found the woods. Schauffele missed well right again on the par-4 18th and then inquired about a drop – he wanted line-of-sight relief from a scoreboard, but the scoreboard was directly behind a whole bunch of trees, so his inquiry was met with an “absolutely not.” (You can’t fault the man for thinking creatively.) Next came a punch out to the fairway, which meant he had to get up-and-down to avoid a playoff with Sabbatini. His third landed well past the pin but spun niftily back to three feet.
“I was trying so hard to just stay calm,” Schauffele said. “Hit a terrible drive on 18, had to make a sort of sloppy par and fortunately hit it close enough to sort of have a high percentage putt at roughly four, five feet. But, man, it was stressful. And I made that putt, and it was just a huge weight lifted off my shoulders and just very relieved and happy, of course.”
Ah yes, that weight. It’s there because Schauffele has steadily accumulated scar tissue from so many near-misses. His last victory on the PGA Tour came in January 2019, and he’s been candid about how frustrated he’s been at his inability to get the job done. Technically speaking, that victory drought persists, for this was not a PGA Tour event. It was much more than that. Closing the deal to win gold will have Xander Schauffele feeling like he’s ended his runner-up chapter – and Stefan Schauffele finally feeling Olympic glory, even if it’s vicarious in nature.
“I felt like I was out there playing,” Stefan told Golf Channel, holding back tears. “No, I’m not that good. You’re very proud. I think the real moment where the emotions come to the surface will be on the podium, when the anthem plays. Talking about this previously, I got choked up. I know that’s going to be a big moment. Very proud.”