Once it was announced that golf at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics would be a no-cut, small-field event, it should have been apparent that Xander Schauffele would thrive. The American won gold on Sunday with a closing 68 to finish 18 under at Kasumigaseki Country Club, clipping Rory Sabbatini by one stroke on a wild Sunday of golf outside of Tokyo.
Sabbatini went out a few groups ahead of Schauffele and fired a shocking 10-under 61 to put some electricity into what looked like a Schauffele rout early in the day. The jolt of Sabbatini – competing under the Slovakian flag with his wife on the bag (more on that below) – running up the board combined with the difficulty of closing out any golf tournament seemed to affect Schauffele late in the day.
After a flawless first nine, Schauffele started to skid a bit going into the ending. A tee shot that nearly went out of bounds and ended with him thinning an iron out of the forest because his club was wrapped around a vine resulted in a bogey 6 on the par-5 14th hole. It could have been much worse. He got that stroke back on No. 17 with a clutch up and down from a greenside bunker for birdie and then hit the shot of his life on the 18th. From 98 yards to 3 feet for a gold medal when he absolutely had to have it to avoid a playoff with Sabbatini.
"Probably more [pressure in this event than other ones] in all honesty," Schauffele told Golf Channel after winning for the first time in over two years. "I really wanted to win for my dad. I'm sure he's crying somewhere right now. I kind of wanted this one more than any other one."
Schauffele's father, Stefan, was once an Olympic hopeful for Germany in the decathlon before being hit by a drunk driver and losing vision in one of his eyes. He now coaches his son, who is also an Olympic champion.
The win is the biggest of Schauffele's still-growing resume. Four of his five wins as a professional have come in similar small-field, no-cut tournaments, including the Tour Championship, WGC-HSBC Champions and Tournament of Champions. This one, though, will linger longer than the rest of them and could be rocket fuel to what has been an incredibly successful career to date, despite no major championship wins.
That's for later, though. For now, Schauffele gets to enjoy winning the United States a gold medal in the second event since golf was reinstated as an Olympic sport back in 2016 at the Rio Games (Matt Kuchar took bronze for the U.S. in 2016). Schauffele was one of the more vocal players this week about how monumental bringing a medal back to his home country would be, and I thought of what he said on Tuesday after he won on Sunday.
"I think obviously winning a gold medal and representing our country is a big deal or else we wouldn't be sitting here talking to you and answering these questions," said Schauffele.
"If you look at other ... athletes, track and field, swimming, judo, any other extreme athlete, this is the pinnacle. This is the most honorable thing and the biggest thing you can do for your country. For golf it's so fresh and so new and fortunately [teammate] Collin [Morikawa] and I are young, and so when we talk to you, it is exciting, it is very cool. It is something we want to do, and winning a gold medal and representing the USA correctly. And, like I said, we wouldn't be here if we didn't feel that way and feel strongly about it."
Schauffele has his gold medal, and though it came in a similarly-styled tournament to most of the others he's won, he did it differently than before. This is the first time he's led from out in front and closed a 54-hole lead. That's meaningful in any event, even more so in an Olympics with a crushing weight bearing down on you, improbably in the form of a 61 from a man who just gained citizenship to the country he was representing a few years ago.
Schauffele's gold medal is a big deal for myriad reasons. Shutting down a tournament he knows means the world to his father. Staring down a gold medal with one of the best shots he's ever hit. Holding off all comers by winning from out in front. It may not have been seen by very many folks in the United States, but those who did stay up for it will remember that he won it and how he won it for a very long time. Grade: A+
Here are the rest of our grades for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
2. SILVER -- Rory Sabbatini (-17): Sabbatini lit the tournament on fire on Sunday ahead of the leaders with that 61 that included two bogeys and one of the great early fist pumps in golf history on the final hole (the video below is incredible). Sabbatini talked all week about the jolt he's been wanting to give to golf in Slovakia (though he's from South Africa, he has dual-citizenship because his wife, who caddied for him this week, is Slovakian). He didn't end up winning gold, but notching Slovakia's third medal of these Olympic Games is a big deal, and him shooting a 61 in the middle of the night (and a best-ball 57 with playing partner C.T. Pan!) is one I'm going to remember for a long, long time. Grade: A+
3. BRONZE -- C.T. Pan (-15): Pan technically finished T3 with six other golfers but beat them all on the fourth playoff hole for the bronze medal when Collin Morikawa's second shot plugged in a bunker. Normally, it would be remarkable that Pan beat Morikawa, Rory McIlroy, Hideki Matsuyama and Paul Casey in a playoff, but in this instance it is truly astonishing. Why? Pan started his tournament with a 74 on Thursday that was better than two golfers. He closed 66-66-63 just to get into the playoff and ended up taking home a medal. Unbelievable stuff. Grade: A
T4. Hideki Matsuyama (-15): Matsuyama was one of those golfers Pan beat in the insane seven-man playoff. He started slow but closed hard and had a putt to avoid the playoff altogether on the 72nd hole. He missed it and bowed out of the playoff early on the first hole, but his performance in his home country when everyone was expecting so much from the Masters champion was pretty inspiring. Especially considering this was his first event in a month after he tested positive for COVID-19 and missed the last major of the year. Grade: A
T4. Rory McIlroy (-15): McIlroy lost out on the seven-way bronze medal playoff on the third playoff hole, but he was terrific both on and off the course all week. He gave a ton of great quotes -- and talked a lot about how he needs to be more relaxed on the course and more athletic with his putting -- but this is the one I think will stick with me the longest.
"I need to give things a chance," he said of his skepticism about the Olympics before playing in it. "I was speaking to my wife last night and saying maybe I shouldn't be so skeptical. But I think I need to do a better job of just giving things a chance, experiencing things, not writing them off at first glance. That's sort of a trait of mine, but like I'm happy to be proven wrong. I was proven wrong at the Ryder Cup, I've been proven wrong this week and I'm happy that, I'm happy to say that." Grade: A
Also finished T4 (-15): Sebastian Munoz, Paul Casey, Mito Pereira
T22. Sungjae Im (-10): Im gave it a great run on the weekend but eventually came up short because of a slow start in the first two rounds that had him 1 over going to the weekend. He (and Si Woo Kim) are notable because winning any of the three medals this week would have exempted them from mandatory military service in the future. They're both young enough that they could have another shot at the 2024 Olympics or even the 2028 Olympics, but with so much of the golf world rooting for them in Tokyo, it was a huge bummer to see them come up short (Kim finished T32). Grade: B+
T22. Justin Thomas (-10): If this event had been seven or eight days long, J.T. may have ended up winning. After an opening 71 on Thursday in which he made 18 consecutive pars, he improved his score every day and closed with a 65 on Sunday. He was among the huge group of players who were overwhelmed with how good their Olympics experience was.
"It's so different," said Thomas. "It was cooler than I thought it was. I'm more proud of being here than I thought I would be. I thought I would be proud, but the first like day or two I immediately found out that this is like the coolest thing I've ever been a part of.
"The Ryder Cup is cool, the Presidents Cup's cool, but this is just so different. I grew up watching the Ryder Cup, the Presidents Cup, the majors, and never grew up watching this, so no one was ever able to relay or say how it felt being an Olympian, especially a golfer. I was never hitting putts as an 8, 10-year-old on the putting green to win the Olympics and win a gold medal. So I think when you don't have the ability to dream something, when you get here … it can sometimes just take you by surprise, and this definitely exceeded that." Grade: B-
Below is a breakdown of the entire wild final round of golf at the Olympics on Saturday night and early Sunday morning.