For a few years now, we have appreciated Xander Schauffele for what he’s almost done.
He’s almost won a handful of major championships.
He’s almost cracked the top three in the world rankings.
He’s almost been a top-tier star.
Schauffele needed something big and he got it with his gold-medal performance in the Olympics, a victory that did more than redefine the 27-year-old’s place in the game.
As Schauffele stood on the medal stand, flanked by the unlikely duo of Rory Sabbatini and C.T. Pan, his achievement and the glow that emanated from Kasumigaseki Country Club reinforced the value of golf in the Olympics.
Schauffele needed the gold medal and the Olympics needed Schauffele. They enhanced each other, just as Sabbatini’s closing 61 spiced the final day and the emotion that came with chasing a bronze medal – third place – pulsed through a gangsome of players who wanted to stand where Pan ultimately stood.
Like a shadow, Schauffele has been ever present since he became the first rookie to win the Tour Championship in 2017 and it felt like he had won more than four PGA Tour events because he’s so much a part of the conversation so often.
Schauffele has played 18 major championships and finished in the top 10 in half of them. He has finished no lower than T7 in the last five U.S. Opens.
But it had been 2½ years since Schauffele had won and no matter how many top-10 finishes a player accumulates, it’s the trophies that separate them.
The go-ahead birdie at the 17th hole and the most meaningful wedge shot of Schauffele’s career to set up a par save at the finishing hole were the golden moments on a gold-medal day.
In Schauffele’s case, it’s the gold medal that hung around his neck late Sunday outside Tokyo, something only a select few will ever wear.
“I haven't won anything in quite some time, that bothered me and my team, they know more than anyone else I've been knocking on the door a lot. And so you kind of get that taste of winning and then it kind of gets swiped from you and you're a little bit sour, even if you're playing really good golf,” Schauffele said.
“So for me it was this was a really big point for me in my career I guess to sort of have a lead and be able to sort of cap it off. I haven't done that before, it's a first for me and it was hard. Every time I watch someone do it on TV it looks hard and today was hard and I'm happy to be able to pull it off.”
The Olympic hurdles may be run in a stadium more than an hour from where Schauffele shot 18-under par over four hot days but he had to clear his own hurdle. What Schauffele did in Japan was golf’s version of running through the tape.
It’s something Hideki Matsuyama tried to do, carrying the weight of his homeland over four long days, and for a player who doesn’t show much emotion, the strain and disappointment of coming so close shown like a spotlight on his face.
Matsuyama had the opportunity to wear a green jacket and a gold medal, something no player has done. He came so close.
“I have no energy or endurance left at this point. But I kept fighting at the end with my heart. Unfortunately, I fell short at the end,” Matsuyama said.
Meanwhile, Schauffele started the final round with the lead, birdied three of his first five holes to expand his lead, then came the challenge of finishing what he had started.
It would be difficult if it were the John Deere Classic but trying to do it in Japan where he has deep family ties and knowing his father/coach had his own Olympic decathlon dreams destroyed years ago in an auto accident, Schauffele wasn’t playing for just himself.
The Olympics come with a swirl of color and what must feel like chaos to golfers accustomed to doing things their own ways. Between the pageantry and the protocols, the quasi-team environment and the universally ugly outfits, the game is the same but virtually everything else is different.
Ultimately, though, the competition – whether it’s swimming, skateboarding or golf – glistens.
So did Schauffele when it mattered the most.
Knowing Sabbatini had come screaming up the leaderboard to force the issue, Schauffele fought his driver coming in – again – but didn’t allow the mistakes to undo the work he had done.
The questions don’t get much bigger in golf and the answers could hardly have been more emphatic.
“As a competitor, personally it's always important to take the next step and I was kind of stuck in a gear, over-thinking over-complicating certain moments,” Schauffele said.
“So if you put just everything aside for me personally this is just a big deal just to sort of pull through while having the lead since I have never done it before.”
Walking off the 18th green, Schauffele walked into a hug with his father, Stefon, whose Olympic dreams were dashed more than 30 years ago when a piece of glass from the windshield of a car lodged in his left eye in an accident.
Stefon Schauffele’s tears were hidden by his sunglasses and his son wouldn’t divulge exactly what they said during their embrace, suggesting it was a little too coarse for public consumption, but it was a moment that had been a lifetime in the making.
Schauffele’s mother moved from Chinese Taipei to Japan when she was 4 years old and his grandparents still live in Japan. His father is of German/French heritage and Schauffele is American-born, a child of southern California with a world view that reaches beyond borders.
He talked Sunday evening about the value of seeing the world from an international perspective, how having parents from different backgrounds has helped shape him as a person. The more of the world you see, Schauffele suggested, the easier it is to appreciate others and their ways of life.
As a golfer, Schauffele has seen others win major championships he’s flirted with and he’s continued to believe his moment was coming.
It arrived Sunday.
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