August 1, 2021 - 8:00 am
KAWAGOE, Japan — Four feet between his golf ball and the cup was all that separated Xander Schauffele from an Olympic gold medal, and he couldn’t help but let his mind wander.
For Schauffele, it would be as special as a major, the championships that have eluded him far too many times, most recently at the Masters. For his father, an Olympic medal to share after his own aspirations ended in a horrific car accident that cost him his left eye.
The Las Vegas resident bowed his head and closed his eyes to snap back into the present.
“I just reminded myself, this is just a 4-footer,” he said Sunday. “All you have to do is make it. No big deal.”
He made it. It was a big deal.
With more pressure than he needed, Schauffele got the prize he wanted in a conclusion to men’s golf so wild that nine players were still in the mix for a medal as the last three players measured their putts on the 18th green.
The putt that mattered most belonged to Schauffele, who had to lay up short of the water and rely on a wedge and a putt for par and a 4-under 67.
“I maybe put more pressure on myself wanting to go win this more than anything else,” he said. “And with my dad, he dedicated a big chunk of his life for quite some time to obtaining a medal, and that was taken away from him. … It was more than just golf for me. And I’m just really, really happy and fortunate to be sitting here.”
Rory Sabbatini set an Olympic record with a 61 — with two bogeys on his card — that nearly was good enough for a sudden-death playoff for the gold. He was more than happy to win the silver medal for Slovakia.
The bronze? Well, that was complicated.
Hideki Matsuyama ended his dream of adding gold to a Masters green jacket by missing too many putts along the back nine at Kasumigaseki Country Club. He still had a 12-foot birdie putt for the bronze on the final hole. He missed that, too, putting him in a seven-man playoff among players from seven countries for the final medal.
Matsuyama was eliminated on the first extra hole, along with Paul Casey, with a bogey.
Less than a month removed from recovering from COVID-19, the Japanese star was one shot out of the lead with four holes to play, and wound up without a medal.
No gold, silver or bronze. He still has a green jacket.
Rory McIlroy, Mito Pereira and Sebastian Munoz were bounced on the third playoff hole with pars. That left C.T. Pan and British Open champion Collin Morikawa, who both shot 63, and Pan won with an 8-foot par.
Stefan Schauffele watched the medal ceremony from off the 18th green, tears behind dark sunglasses as his son put the medal around his neck.
The father was 20 when he was invited to train with Germany’s national team as a decathlete. He was hit by a drunk driver, an accident that left him blind in one eye and no longer able to compete in the sports he loved.
He eventually found golf, which he passed on to his son.
“Because of what happened to me, I promised myself I will make sure my kids will find out how good they are at whatever they’re trying to do. In this case, it was golf,” the father said. “That was fueled by the fact I never found out how good I was.”
Schauffele, whose mother was raised in Japan and has grandparents in the city who were kept from watching him under the ban on spectators, appeared to have this won all along.
Sabbatini finished with a fist-pumping birdie on the 18th hole. That put him one shot behind Schauffele, who still six holes remaining and two good scoring chances.
And then one swing changed everything.
Schauffele sent his tee shot well right of the fairway on the par-5 14th and into the bushes. He had to take a one-shot penalty just to get out, took three more shots to reach the green and made a 5-foot putt for bogey.
He was tied for the lead, with Matsuyama one shot behind.
Schauffele kept his California cool and delivered two clutch putts at the end.
“I was trying so hard to just stay calm,” Schauffele said. “But man, it was stressful. And I made that putt and it was just a huge weight lifted off my shoulders.”
Sabbatini had plenty to be happy about with silver. Born in South Africa, he decided at the end of 2018 to become a Slovakian citizen through his wife, Martina, who had a relative running the tiny Slovak Golf Federation. His wife caddied for him this week.
That made him eligible for the Olympics, and now Slovakia has its third medal in the Tokyo Games. It has a gold in women’s trap and a silver in men’s kayak. Sabbatini is the first Slovakian to compete in Olympic golf.
“The sole purpose of it was to generate future generations of Slovak golfers,” Sabbatini said. “It’s not exactly the prime sport for kids to grow up and want to go play in Slovakia, so hopefully we can inspire future Olympians.”