Xander Schauffele ultimately emerged the winner in the Olympics Men’s Golf event clinching his golden moment with one final, gutsy par-save on the final hole for a 4-under par 67 and 18-under total. But it was the 61 strokes of eventual silver medalist Rory Sabbatini, representing Slovakia, that really shook the leaderboard and the chase for Olympic gold.
Until one swing on the par-5 14th hole produced a wayward drive and bogey, Schauffele remained undeterred through a scoring assault that was unfolding ahead, led by Sabbatini’s brilliant record-setting round that concluded more than an hour ahead of him.
In fact, the perfect scoring conditions led to a seven-player elimination for the bronze medal, which was finally decided on the fourth extra hole with C.T. Pan of Chinese Taipei beating Collin Morikawa of the USA with a par 4 on No. 18. Both had matched the former Olympic record of 63 Sunday to get into the playoff.
And while that was unfolding ahead Kiwi Ryan Fox was rather quietly polishing off a round of 64 with a six-birdie 29 on the closing nine.
“It was just a little too late,” said Fox, who entered the day plus-2 for the tournament.
“I actually played quite nicely all week and got nothing out of my rounds and it was kind of the opposite today. I hit a lot of good shots, but when I was in trouble, I made some pars and when I hit good shots I made birdie, which is, that’s been the opposite this week. So it was nice to get a decent round under the belt.”
It capped what has been a rewarding first experience as an Olympian.
“It’s been great,” he said. “Obviously a bit different to last time with the COVID scenario and not getting to go to events and maybe not having the same level of socializing that we had last time, but I mean to get to represent your country at the pinnacle, at the Olympics, is pretty cool and certainly something I wouldn’t want to turn down and a great honour to do. And hopefully, I get another chance to do it in the future.”
For Schauffele it took the mental resilience he said came by way of his upbringing, fostered by a father of German-French descent and Chinese Taipei mother who was raised in Japan.
Consider it a respectful nod to the culture of the host country, where his grandparents still live.
“I felt like for the most part of the day I stayed very calm,” Schauffele said.
“I usually look very calm but there’s something terrible happening inside at times. So I was able to learn on those moments where I’ve lost coming down the stretch, where I hit a bad shot or a bad wedge or a bad putt and sort of lose my cool.
“But I felt like today I really, I thought I had a one-shot lead going into 16 or 17 and I looked at the board and I saw Rory shot 61, so that was a nice wake up call for me; thank goodness there was a board there or I wouldn’t have known.
“Yeah, it was a roller coaster day for me especially on that back nine coming in and just happy I could fall back on parts of my game to sort of pull me through.”
Once that drama was settled, it was time to settle the bronze medal winner in a star-packed field that also included Matsuyama (who shot 67), Paul Casey of Great Britain (68), Rory McIlroy of Ireland (67), Mito Pereira of Chile (67) and Sebastián Muñoz of Colombia (67). It was so large, it required splitting into two groups.
Matsuyama and Casey were eliminated first, followed by Muñoz, then Pereira and McIlroy.
“I was not able to deliver the performance I was hoping for,” Matsuyama said. ”At the same time, the positive is that I was able to contend. At one point of the round, there was a moment where I could potentially catch up and move past the leaders. But I just was not able to put it together at the end. There are somethings that I’ve identified that I need to work on, which I hope to work on moving forward.”
Morikawa bogeyed the final hole after his approach to the 18th green plugged in the steep upslope of the fronting bunker. Pan sank a par-saving putt for the medal.
“Very satisfying,” Pan said. “It came as a surprise to me too. After day one, plus 3, 74, I remember I texted one of my good friends and I was like, the struggle is real. So it’s quite a turnaround for this week winning the bronze medal that I couldn’t even think about it, didn’t even think about it after Thursday’s round. So overall that was a very happy ending.”
Morikawa, on the other hand, thought his approach would make the green. “It was a long four holes and I thought my shot was going to be all right and just mishit it,” he said. “CT played great and we had to shoot 8-under for both of us to get in this playoff for bronze. So, it sucks, but hopefully it’s not a last and hopefully we’ll be back in four years.”
McIlroy for one came away more determined than ever to earn an Olympic medal.
“Yeah, it does, it makes me even more determined going to Paris (in 2024) and trying to pick one up,” he said. “It’s disappointing going away from here without any hardware, I’ve been saying all day I never tried so hard in my life to finish third. But it’s been a great experience, today was a great day to be up there in contention for a medal … certainly had a different feeling to it than I expected and yeah, as I said I’m already looking forward to three years’ time and trying to go at least one better but hopefully three better.”
Casey, on the other hand, at age 44 is unsure whether he will get another chance at the Olympics, But he made the most of this opportunity, playing his way into the final pairing after tying with Carlos Ortiz of Mexico for third.
He eloquently summed up the Olympic experience, saying, “This is my first Olympics, so I think that’s the one thing I witnessed a lot this week is there’s triumph and there’s the heart ache and we have seen it in the (Olympic) Village we have soon it in Team GB (Great Britain). Now you’ve seen it here on the golf course as well. So, I mean, first of all, what a day to play the final group in the Olympics with Hideki and then Xander gold medalist in Japan. Brilliant. For me that was one of the coolest rounds to be a part of. Sure, I wish I could have got my driver working a bit better and I struggled, but I battled and I’m so very proud of how hard I worked and tried to squeeze as much out of my game as I possibly could. Would love to have brought a medal home, not just for myself but for Team GB, would have been the ultimate. But the whole week has been phenomenal. I’ve made friends, can’t say enough good things about my experience this week.”
It was a common thread throughout the week, which ended with a most memorable day, particularly for the medal winners.
“I feel good,” Schauffele said of winning the gold medal in Japan, considering his heritage. “I maybe put more pressure on myself to go win this more than anything else for quite some time … And my ties here with my grandparents living here and my mom growing up here as well, there’s just all these things that sort of motivated me to do better, be better. And maybe I put more pressure on myself but it was sort of more than just golf for me and I’m just really, really happy and fortunate to be sitting here.”