KAWAGOE, Japan – The past few years Xander Schauffele was the next big thing from pro golf, which is a term that is usually, and ideally, temporary.
But his rise was stuck in neutral, played very well but not well. A number of top-10 finishes in majors, but an unsatisfactory tendency to fall short on Sundays. The unpleasant reality was that when he flew to Japan last week for the Olympic Games, he did not win for more than two years.
It was hard not to take it into account when Schauffele wandered into a forest on the edge of Kasumigaseki Country Club to get his ball on the 14th hole in the final round of the Olympic Golf Tournament. He was deep in jail. And a few meters behind him the favorite of the homeland, Hideki Matsuyama, was about to blow a 240-meter approach to within the eagle range.
Schauffele and Matsuyama have been here before – in Augusta in April when a disastrous triple bogey on the 15th Sunday crushed Schauffele’s Masters chances and paved the way for Matsuyama’s green jacket. It ended up being one of the top six finishes Schauffele has already achieved in just 18 majors. He has eight top tries since his last win, and that’s how he came in at number 5 on the world rankings.
In turn Sunday, Schauffele, the overnight leader, was four strokes on the field and played aggressively but steadily on a course that rewarded the strategy. But with a big title in reach, he started to increase and become provisional. Putts fall short and iron shots drift to safe spaces. Matsuyama, for his shot, shot well and collected birdies. And the scoreboards showed it Rory Sabbatini, the 45-year-old South African who played for Slovakia through Slovakia, got a brilliant 10-under-61 to get right on Schaufele’s heels.
There was a sense of ‘not again’ that Schauffele might be on his way to another top-three. Nice, but not great.
Especially after his unplayable lie in the forest unfortunately bounced and even left him in a miserable place after the punishment. Then he hits a wild shot, misses his target and hits almost several trees before jumping into the rock.
“It was a very stupid thing I might have done. I tried to hit it through a gap and missed it completely and my ball shot through like three different trees,” Schauffele said. “No guts, no glory. I think what they say. It could have easily hit a tree and gone off limits immediately.”
But this is where this story changes. And maybe that’s even where Schauffele’s career changes. What happened the next hour not only made him a gold medal winner, but perhaps brought him to the next area of pro golf as well.
During the ensuing hour, Schauffele made three challenging and clutches up and down, which proved his skill and nerves and made it clear that he could deliver under great pressure on a hot Sunday afternoon.
He saved bogey at 14, bounced a 45-yard to five-foot shot from a difficult pin and then made the return.
Then on the 17th, he made one of the biggest birdies of his career and fired a long bunker shot at the short par-4 to land eight feet from the cup. Knowing well that this shot would give him the lead over Sabbatini, he calmly dropped the putt.
At 18, a challenging 500 meters par 4 with a tight landing area and an onslaught over water, he blew the ball right and back into the trees. He hit a marshal in the back, which possibly saved him from ruin. But anyway, it was in a bad state and there was a chance for doubt to come back because it would be a bad memory.
He walked up to 100 meters, but it would be far from there. The pen was on a plateau. Everything that was short was dead. There was a slope behind the pin, but it was stiff, a little long and the ball would be gone. Kasumigaseki did not have much defense except for his multi-level leaves with truffles, and it was absolutely one.
It was not the hardest shot of the day, but it was the hardest. This is where Schauffele really came into play. He lobbed his wedge with precision and landed it 20 feet past the pin to avoid the hill safely and right into the back slope. As the turn grips and the ball zips back to the cup, aided by the hill, it ends up less than five feet.
Perfect. A final round 67 got him America’s first gold since golf returned to the 2016 Olympics. The last American to win gold at the Olympics was Charles Sands during the 1900 Paris Games.
“Most of the day I stayed very calm. I usually look very calm, but sometimes something terrible happens inside,” Schauffele said. “I could fall back on the moments where I lost, but I got a bad shot or a bad wedge or a bad shot, where I lost my cool.”
His father, Stefan, who grew up in Germany, dreams of winning gold in the decathlon before a terrible car accident ended his hopes at the age of 20. His father was his lifelong swing boxer and Schauffele made playing in Tokyo a priority in part because his father never reached the Olympic goal.
“I promised myself I would make sure my kids would find out how good they are at everything they try to do,” said Stefan Schauffele, who was able to attend the event as his son’s coach. “It’s an ongoing process, but it’s fueled by the fact that I never found out how good I was.”
Dad and son cuddle just next to the 18th green, the boy looks relieved and the father proud. Not far away were the grandparents of Schauffele, who lives in Japan, where his mother grew up.
“They were probably the only people in Japan who were rooted for me and not Hideki,” Schauffele said.
Schauffele has four wins on the PGA Tour, including the Tour Championship, his rookie year in 2017 and the Champions Tournament in 2019. It’s excellent, but with a motivated, international course and high pressure golf, it’s a level above.
And it could complement the 27-year-old’s career.
“This is his first win from scratch. He had the lead on Friday, the lead on Saturday and he won,” said Stefan Schauffele. “It’s important. He proved something great to himself, especially since Hideki attacked him. It was good to pull through and make the right decisions.”
Maybe even wonderful.