KAWAGOE, Japan — For the past few years, Xander Schauffele has been pro golf’s next big thing, which is a designation that’s usually — and ideally — temporary.
But his ascent had been stuck in neutral. He has been playing very well, but not great. A bevy of top-10 finishes in majors, but an unsatisfying trend of coming up short on Sundays. The unpleasant reality was that when he flew to Japan last week for the Olympic Games, he hadn’t won in more than two years.
It was hard not to consider this when Schauffele was wandering into a thicket on the edge of Kasumigaseki Country Club to retrieve his ball on the 14th hole in the final round of the Olympic golf tournament. He was deep in jail. And a few yards behind him, the homeland favorite, Hideki Matsuyama, was about to blast a 240-yard approach to within eagle range.
Schauffele and Matsuyama had been here before — at Augusta in April when a disastrous triple bogey at the 15th on Sunday crushed Schauffele’s Masters chances and cleared the way for Matsuyama’s green jacket. It ended up as one of the six top-five finishes Schauffele already has in just 18 majors. He has eight top threes since his last win, which is how he got to No. 5 in the world rankings.
At the turn Sunday, Schauffele, the overnight leader, was up 4 strokes on the field, playing aggressively yet steadily on a course that rewards that strategy. But with a huge title in reach, he started to tighten up and get tentative. Putts were coming up short and iron shots were drifting toward safe spaces. Matsuyama was shooting well and putting birdies to together. And the scoreboards showed that Rory Sabbatini, the 45-year-old South African playing for Slovakia through marriage, had carded a brilliant 10-under 61 to get right on Schaufele’s heels.
There was a “not again” feel, that maybe Schauffele was headed for another top three. Nice but not great.
Especially after his unplayable lie in those woods bounced unfortunately and left him in a miserable spot even after the penalty. Then he hit a wild punch shot, missing his target and nearly hitting several trees before it bounced into the rough.
“That was a very stupid thing I did maybe. I tried to hit it through a gap and missed it completely and my ball shot through like three different trees,” Schauffele said. “No guts, no glory I guess is what they say. That could’ve easily hit a tree and gone straight out of bounds.”
But this is where this story changes. And perhaps this is even where Schauffele’s career changes. What happened over the next hour not only made him a gold medalist but perhaps carried him into the next realm of pro golf.
Schauffele made three challenging, and clutch, up-and-downs over the ensuing hour that proved both his skill and nerves and made it clear he can deliver under major pressure on a hot Sunday afternoon.
He saved bogey at 14, skidding a shot from 45 yards to five feet from a tough pin location and then made the comebacker.
Then at the 17th, he made one of the biggest birdies of his career, blasting a long bunker shot on the short par-4 to land eight feet from the cup. Knowing full well this shot was to give him the lead over Sabbatini, he calmly dropped the putt.
At 18, a challenging 500-yard par 4 with a tight landing area and an approach over water, he blasted the ball way right and into the trees again. He hit a marshal in the back, which might have saved him from doom. But either way, it was in a bad shape and there was a chance for doubts to come again, for this to be a bad memory.
He pitched out to 100 yards, but it would be far from easy from there. The pin was on a plateau. Anything short was dead. There was a slope behind the pin but it was tight, a little long and the ball would be gone. Kasumigaseki doesn’t have much defense other than its multi-tiered greens with trick pins and this was absolutely one.
It wasn’t the toughest shot of the day, but it was the most pressure-packed. This is where Schauffele really came through. He lobbed his wedge with precision, landing it 20 feet past the pin to safely avoid the mound and right into the backstop slope. As the spin grabbed and the ball zipped back toward the cup, aided by the hill, it ended up less than five feet.
Perfect. A final round 67 got him America’s first gold since golf returned to the Olympics in 2016. The last American to win gold in the Olympics was Charles Sands at the 1900 Paris Games.
“For the most of the day I stayed very calm. I usually look very calm but there’s something terrible is happening inside at times,” Schauffele said. “I was able to fall back on those moments where I’ve lost coming down the stretch, where I’ve hit a bad shot or a bad wedge or a bad putt, where I’ve lost my cool.”
Standing off the green was his father, Stefan, who grew up in Germany dreaming of winning gold in the decathlon before a terrible car accident ended his hopes at age 20. His dad has been his life-long swing coach and Schauffele made playing in Tokyo a priority in part because his dad never achieved Olympic goal.
“I promised myself I will make sure that my kids will find out how good they are at whatever they’re trying to do,” said Stefan Schauffele, who as able to attend the no-fan event as his son’s coach. “It’s a continuous process but it’s fueled by the fact that I never found out how good I was.”
Father and son hugged just off the 18th green, the son looking relieved and the father proud. Not far away were Schauffele’s grandparents, who live in Japan, where his mother grew up.
“They were probably the only people in Japan rooting for me and not Hideki,” Schauffele said.
Schauffele has four wins on the PGA Tour including the Tour Championship his rookie year in 2017 and the Tournament of Champions in 2019. Those are excellent but, facing a motivated, international field and high pressure golf, this is a level above.
And might supercharge the 27-year-old’s career.
“It’s his first win from the front. He had the lead on Friday, he had the lead on Saturday and he won,” Stefan Schauffele said. “It’s significant. He proved something big to himself especially with Hideki attacking him. For him to pull through and make the right decisions was good.”
Maybe even great.