KAWAGOE, Japan – Xander Schauffele Won an Olympic gold medal he wanted by overcoming more pressure than he could have imagined on Sunday.
Just when Schauffele seems to be losing his firm grip on the gold, the 27-year-old American responds at the end with two connecting folds for a 4-under 67 and a one-shot victory Rory Sabbatini of Slovakia in a wild final for the men’s golf competition.
The one was a 6-foot birdie for the lead. The last one was a 4 foot putt for the win.
“Just shocked,” Schauffele said. ‘I tried so hard to just stay calm.
The tension made the hot air at Kasumigaseki Country Club feel even thicker. When the last group walked on the 18th green, nine players were in the mix.
One of them was Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama, just not the medal his golf crazy country wanted for him. He was one stroke out of the lead when he missed a 3-foot putt on the 15th hole and never caught up. He missed a 12-foot birdie on the 18th hole for the bronze.
And then he left without a medal.
Matsuyama was part of a seven-man playoff game for the bronze, which included Rory McIlroy and British Open champion Collin Morikawa. Matsuyama let down the first extra hole and was eliminated, ending a week of high expectations.
No gold, silver or bronze. The 29-year-old Japanese star still wears a Masters green jacket.
CT Pan of Taiwan, who closed with a 63, won the bronze in a playoff match between seven countries that lasted four holes.
Matsuyama en Paul Casey was eliminated with bogeys on the first extra hole. McIlroy, Mite Pereira of Chile and Sebastian Munoz were eliminated with pars on the third hole. Pan grabbed an 8-foot putt on the 18th, after Morikawa’s approach plugged the sand short of the green and gave him a long putt that he could not reverse.
It seems Schauffele, whose mother grew up in Japan and has grandparents in the city, while he was not allowed to watch him under the ban on spectators.
Sabbatini set the Olympic record with a 61 and finished with a fistfighting birdie on the 18th hole. That put him one shot behind Schauffele, who had two more good church chances under the six holes in front of him on the back nine.
And then one swing changed everything.
Schauffele sent his tap shot right from the fairway on the par-5 14th and into the woods. He had to take a penalty kick of just one shot just to get out, took three more shots to reach the green and made a 5-foot shot to limit the damage to a bogey.
He was level with the lead, with Matsuyama one shot behind.
Schauffele kept his California cool and hit the driver in a green bunker on the 17th hole, where the tees were moved forward to cause excitement. He blows out to 6 feet and allows birdie to regain the lead.
One pair for the gold. If only it were that simple.
Schauffele sends another ride to the right, gets a good kick in the rough but blocked by the trees, and forces him to lie down short of the water. From 98 yards he strikes a lobe wedge about 15 feet behind the pin and watches it turn back to 4 feet.
He looked more relieved than he was excited after the putt fell. It was his first victory since January 2019, and the number 5 player in the world found the ideal place to end the drought.
Schauffele has been pointing to the Olympics, especially in Tokyo, since he first joined the elite in American golf three years ago. Her German-born father, Stefan, dreamed of being an Olympic athlete until his car was hit by a drunk driver on the road to ten-camp training when he was 20, which cost him his left eye.
Stefan Schauffele looks through his monocular and sees how his dreams are being fulfilled by his son.
The embrace they shared afterwards was pure gold.
“Having my dad here is really special,” Schauffele said. “I gave him a hug back in the green. I know it means a lot to him, so I’m glad to deliver it.”
Sabbatini has a lot to be happy about with silver. Born in South Africa, he decided at the end of 2018 to become a Slovak citizen through his wife, Martina, who had a family member who runs the small Slovak golf association. His wife was looking for him this week.
It made him eligible for the Olympics, and now Slovakia has its third medal at the Tokyo Games. It has a gold in women’s fall and a silver in kayak for men. Sabbatini is the first Slovak to participate in Olympic golf.
“Its sole purpose was to generate future generations of Slovak golfers,” Sabbatini said. “It’s not exactly the most important sport for children to grow up and wants to play in Slovakia, so hopefully we can inspire future Olympians.”