TOKYO — Xander Schauffele held on to win the fourth-ever men's Olympic golf event with a final round 4-under 67 at hot and steamy Kasumigaeski Country Club on the outskirts of Tokyo on Sunday. It was Schauffele's first win anywhere in the world since the 2019 Tournament of Champions on Maui. Rory Sabbatini shot a stunning 61 to finish one behind and grab a silver medal, while CT Pan emerged from a seven-man playoff that included Rory McIlroy, Paul Casey and Hideki Matsuyama to win bronze.
Since that '19 Tournament of Champions, Schauffele, whose mother was born in Taiwan but spent most of her formative years in Japan, has struggled to close out tournaments. He notched 18 top-10 finishes and a few major-championship near-misses, including a T3 at the 2021 Masters and a T7 at the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. But on this Sunday at the Olympics, he closed the deal.
“Just in shock,” Schauffele, 27, said afterward. “I was trying so hard to just stay calm. 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.”
The leaderboard was in flux most of the day, but the top spot always held constant -- Schauffele started the day with a one-shot lead and never surrendered it.
Starting at 14-under and one shot ahead of Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, the San Diego native wasted no time by knocking in two quick birdies to start the final round and make a statement that he was not going to relinquish the lead easily. When he birdied the two front-nine par 5’s to turn in a 4-under, the gold medal was firmly in his grasp.
But the closing stretch wasn't easy. Schauffele hit a poor tee shot into the shrubbery far right on the par-5 14th and when he eventually arrived at the ball, his options were limited. He took a drop, made a bogey and fell into a tie for the lead with Sabbatini, formerly of South Africa and competing in these Games for Slovakia.
“When it was in the air it was oh, bleep,” Schauffele said of his drive on 14. “And then I thought I saw it drop down. They were looking in the bushes. Here's the thing, when you're trying to win a golf tournament you need things to go your way. To me that was a very stupid thing I did maybe potentially. I tried to hit it through a gap, I hit a tree, I missed the gap completely and my ball literally shot through like three different trees to get out to advance. So that was my lucky moment of the day. Stupid or not, no guts, no glory I guess is what they say. But that could have easily hit the tree and gone straight out of bounds and I probably wouldn't even be on this podium.”
The 45-year-old Sabbatini emerged as an improbable challenger. He started his final round 7 under par and teed off 1 hour and 22 minutes ahead of the final group. He stormed to three birdies and an eagle over his first six holes to stamp his name on the leaderboard. He made two straight birdies to start the back nine to get to 16 under par, but the run came to a screeching halt with a careless bogey on the par-3 16th. But he dug deep for a bounce-back birdie the drivable par-4 17th and after piping his drive on 18, he pured his second shot to 15 feet. His birdie putt for a round of 10-under 61 was perfect.
“The honest truth is I had probably one of the worse warm-ups I've ever had in my golfing career,” Sabbatini said afterward. “I couldn't find the golf ball and the club face to match them up at all. And to such a respect that I was like, okay, I'm done warming up -- I guess I'll try to find it out there. Somehow, I managed to find it. Did I think I had 10-under in me today? After yesterday, not a chance.”
The 72nd hole green may have lacked fans, but it was ringed with volunteers, coaches, players, and women competitors who were on the grounds to practice for their event this week. They witnessed some great drama.
Playing alongside Schauffele, Great Britain’s Paul Casey and Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama were at 15-under and both could have medaled with a birdie. Schauffele was the last of the group and stood on the tee with a one-shot lead over Sabbatini. Schauffele drove right into the trees, pitched out, hit a solid wedge shot to 4 feet above the hole and canned the putt for gold.
Matsuyama and Casey each had birdie looks to get on the podium.
Before each of the three players' attempts, the crowd was deathly still and all you could hear was the sound of a rope banging against the aluminum flagpoles, where soon afterward a U.S., Slovakia and Chinese Taipei flag would fly in honor of the medalists.
Casey and Matsuyama missed their putts and they would enter a seven-man playoff for bronze that included Rory McIlroy, Collin Morikawa, Tsung Cheng Pan, Mito Pereira and Sebastian Munoz.
Schauffele converted his putt, grabbed the gold and left the silver for Sabbatini.
It took a while for the bronze medal to be decided, but eventually Pan, who started the competition with a 3-over 74, won on the fourth extra hole with a par on the par-4 18th.
But the day belonged to Schauffele, America's new golden boy who finally closed out a victory when he needed it.
“For me I just, I needed to get over the hump, I needed to sort of win while having a lead and I would really compare the two,” Schauffele said after winning the first golf gold medal for the U.S. since Charles Sands at the 1900 games in Paris. “It's something that you find all these mental things to sort of get your head in the right place, but at the end of the day you look at all the guys who win, they just kind of just get it done. They just are clutch in certain areas and whether it's scrambling are driving or iron play. So, for me I'm just happy just to get it done.”
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