Medal madness: Amid big names and great stories, Olympic golf set for golden finish

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KAWAGOE, Japan – The Olympic golf gods could spend a good minute workshopping best-case scenarios for Sunday’s big finish in the men’s golf competition and probably not stray too far from what 54 holes of stroke play have delivered.

For your medal viewing pleasure the final round at Kasumigaseki Country Club will feature a murderer’s row of compelling storylines from Xander Schauffele, who is  in search of a Masters mulligan, to Hideki Matsuyama, who is poised to bookend the greatest season ever by a Japanese golfer, and Paul Casey, whose hasn’t been bashful when it comes to his unbridled passion for the Olympics, to Rory McIlroy, a non-believer turned zealot in three short days.

And that just grazes the edges of what’s possible at an event that defies the standard definition. It might be 72 holes of traditional stroke play that will dictate the outcome, but everyone knows the Summer Games are more nuanced than that.

“This week it's like top 3 or nothing, right?” said McIlroy, who is currently one stroke outside that threshold and tied for fifth place. “Yeah, you're taking peeks and glances at it and seeing how far off the pace you are. There's still 18 holes is a lot of golf still and a lot can happen.”

He will at least start the day looking up at Schauffele, who emerged from a crowded pack and took a one-stroke lead thanks to a third-round 68. It was a rare piece of separation on a sweltering Saturday that included at one frenzied point a five-way tie for the lead.

Just imagine the chaos that would bring with three medals to give.

Golfers prepare for thrilling finish in Tokyo

Schauffele gave some order to the madness late in the day when he birdied his final hole and Matsuyama failed to match him, but that did little to clear a path to Sunday’s ceremony with a dozen players within four strokes of the bronze medal.

For three days players have largely dismissed the unique pressure of the Olympics, instead focusing on what is known and comfortable.

“I think I have just been trying to get my head in the right space,” Schauffele said. “I haven't really been in contention in quite some time, so clearly being more patient and kind of hanging tight and not really letting too many things bother you has been helping.”

He probably won’t spend much time thinking about the last time he was in contention on a Sunday: in April at the Masters, where he lost to Matsuyama. He started that final round tied for second place before playing his first five holes in 3 over par. He finished the day with a disappointing 72 and tied for third.

“You just had to bring it up, huh? No, it's all good,” Schauffele said. “I plan on wearing that jacket some day as well and whenever you play against the world's best you happen to see them a lot. We're playing together tomorrow in the final group and I assume we'll be playing in more final groups for years to come.”

For Matsuyama, closing out the year by winning an Olympic medal in Japan would bring everything full circle since his victory at Augusta National, while Casey can fulfill a dream that began five years ago when he watched fellow Englishman Justin Rose bring home gold.

“I've chatted to [Rose] about it and I know exactly what his gold medal means to him and I know that he'll be watching and he'll be rooting Tommy [Fleetwood] and I on,” said Casey, who is tied with Carlos Ortiz for third place at 12 under par.

As for McIlroy, the week has probably already delivered a meaningful reward. The Northern Irishman, who is playing for Ireland in what would at best be considered a complicated relationship, had been largely indifferent to the golf competition prior to these Summer Games.

Full-field scores from the Olympic Men’s Competition

Two weeks ago, before leaving The Open, he said he didn’t plan to play for country or medals, instead making the trip for the good of the game. Like many before him, a week immersed in the Games has changed his outlook on both golf in the Olympics and snap judgements.

“I've been thinking about that. I need to give things a chance. I was speaking to my wife last night and saying maybe I shouldn't be so skeptical,” McIlroy said. “I think I need to do a better job of just giving things a chance, experiencing things, not writing them off at first glance.”

But then McIlroy was hardly the only person or player who didn’t exactly embrace golf’s return to the Olympics in 2016. For those who have lived the Olympic dream, the energy and effort to bring golf back was well worth it. For others, though, it’s still an outlier.

“I think it gets knocked quite a bit, doesn't it?” Casey said. “It's like why do we need it, all this kind of stuff, but the guys that are here are very aware what this means to one person, it will be three medals but to the gold medalist tomorrow it's massive.”

For those who imagined a best-case scenario for an Olympic Sunday, it’s probably better than anyone could have imagined.