Schauffele wins gold, fulfills family dream

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Team USA’s Xander Schauffele not only ended a winless drought dating back to January 2019 but also fulfilled his family’s longtime Olympic dream on Sunday when he captured the gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Games.

Schauffele finished at 18-under 266 in the four-day, men’s stroke-play competition at Kasumigaseki Country Club, one shot ahead of surprise silver medalist Rory Sabbatini, playing for Slovakia, and two strokes ahead of C.T. Pan, playing for Chinese Taipei, who survived a seven-way playoff that went four extra holes to secure the bronze.

“I maybe put more pressure on myself wanting to go win this more than anything else for quite some time, and with my dad …,” said Schauffele, whose father and coach Stefan grew up in Germany and was an Olympic decathlete hopeful before a car crash with a drunk driver caused loss of vision in his left eye and ended his Olympic dream at age 20.

“My dad aspired to have one of these (an Olympic medal) at some point in his life. He dedicated a big chunk of his life for quite some time to obtaining a medal and that was taken away from him. 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.”

Schauffele’s mother, Ping Yi, is from Chinese Taipei and grew up in Japan, where his grandparents still reside near Tokyo.

The No. 2 betting favorite coming into the tournament at +900 via PointsBet Sportsbook, Schauffele opened with a fairly lackluster 3-under 68 and was five shots behind first-round leader Sepp Straka, playing for Austria, whose opening round of 63 tied the 2016 Olympic men’s record from Rio. But the 27-year-old world No. 5 kicked into high gear for Round 2, carding his own rollercoaster 63 that featured six birdies, two eagles and two bogeys, and put him atop the leaderboard.

Schauffele carried his one-stroke lead through a less dramatic 68 in Round 3, holding a single-stroke margin over Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, who was looking to secure medal for his home country to go along with his Masters’ green jacket from April.

“If I say there’s no pressure, I’ll be lying,” the 29-year-old Matsuyama (listed at +1400 ahead of the tournament) said early in the week. The world No. 20 was still followed by about 100 people – the largest gallery for any player -- despite there being no spectators at Kasumigaseki Country Club.

Listed at +175 going into the final round, Schauffele kept the momentum rolling through his first nine holes going 4 under before leveling out with a stretch of five straight pars. Things got interesting on 14, when he pulled his tee shot into the left trees and ended up making bogey to drop into a tie for the lead with Sabbatini, the leader in the clubhouse after a record-setting 61 vaulted him to 17 under for the tournament.

“The honest truth is I had probably one of the worse warmups I've ever had in my golfing career,” said 45-year-old Sabbatini, the oldest player in the field and a long shot entering the week at +15000. “I couldn't find the golf ball and the club face to match them up at all. And to such a respect that I was like, ‘OK, I'm done warming up.’ It just was like, ‘OK, I guess I'll try to find it out there.’ Somehow, I managed to find it. Did I think I had 10 under in me today? After yesterday, not a chance.”

Sabbatini, who posted rounds of 69-68-70 the first three days, on Sunday made three birdies and an eagle, at the par-4 No. 6, over his first six holes. He also birdied No. 8 but made bogey on No. 9 to shoot 31 on the front. He made six birdies and a bogey on the back.

A birdie at 17 put Schauffele back in the driver’s seat, but he didn’t make it easy on himself at the last, his tee shot finding the right rough and his second shot coming up short. He hit a clutch third shot to 4 feet, getting up-and-down for par to secure gold and become the first individual American men's golfer to win Olympic gold since Charles Sand at the 1900 Paris Games.

"I just reminded myself, this is just a 4-footer," he said Sunday. "All you have to do is make it. No big deal. …

“I felt like for the most part of the day I stayed very calm. I usually look very calm but there's something terrible happening inside at times,” Schauffele admitted. “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.”

Meanwhile, seven golfers found themselves knotted in a tie for third with at 15-under 269. It marked the first-ever, seven-man playoff in PGA Tour and Olympic history, and featured Matsuyama as well as Team USA's Collin Morikawa, the recent Open Championship winner.

Matsuyama’s Olympic medal dreams ended on the first playoff hole along with Great Britain's Paul Casey. Then Colombia's Sebastian Munoz, Chile's Mito Pereira and Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy were eliminated following the third playoff hole, leaving Pan and Morikawa.

Morikawa made bogey on the final playoff hole after his approach to the 18th green plugged in a steep upslope in the front bunker. Pan, who finished T-30 at the 2016 Games in Rio, sank his putt for par and the bronze medal.

“Very satisfying,” said Pan, also a long shot ahead of the week at +15000. “It came as a surprise to me, too. After Day 1, 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.”

“Man, it feels good,” added Schauffele. “It really is a special deal, standing on the podium with these two boys, with our flags being raised, the ceremony, I think people talk about why the Olympics are such a special thing to them and we're fortunate enough to be a part of a ceremony and I think we can all see why people say that. So, I think we're all very happy to be here right now.”

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Team USA finishes on positive note

World No. 3 Collin Morikawa, the betting favorite ahead of the Games at +700, rallied on Sunday with a final-round 63 to get into the seven-way dueled for the bronze medal, and said he “wouldn’t trade anything” for his Olympic experience.

“Yeah, you (have) to earn it,” Morikawa said after losing on the fourth and final hole of the playoff. “It was a long four holes, and I thought my shot was going to be all right and just mishit it and C.T. (Pan) 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.”

World No. 4 Justin Thomas and No. 12 Patrick Reed – an 11th-hour replacement for Bryson DeChambeau, who tested positive for COVID-19 -- each carded final-round 65s to finish T-22.

“It's just, it's so different,” said Thomas, listed at +1000 ahead of the week. “It was cooler than I thought it was. I'm more proud of being here than I thought I would be. I thought I would be proud, but the first like day or two I immediately found out that this is like the coolest thing I've ever been a part of. The Ryder Cup is cool, the Presidents Cup's cool, but this is just so different.

“I grew up watching the Ryder Cup, the Presidents Cup, the majors, and never grew up watching this, so no one was ever able to relay or say how it felt being an Olympian, especially a golfer. And so, it was really -- I was never hitting putts as an 8-, 10-year-old on the putting green to win the Olympics and win a gold medal. So, I think when you don't have the ability to dream something, when you get here it's, it can sometimes just take you by surprise and this definitely exceeded that.”

McIlroy sets sights on Paris 2024

Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, part of the epic playoff for bronze, also came away from the event as an “Olympic convert,” surprised at what a great time he had in Tokyo.

“It's been a brilliant week,” said McIlroy, listed at +1100 to start the week. “I've really enjoyed spending so much time with Shane (Lowry) and all the guys, and it's just been a throwback to the good old days when we didn't play for money. …

“I made some comments before that were probably uneducated and impulsive, but coming here experiencing it, seeing, feeling everything that goes on, not just Olympic golf but just the Olympics in general, that sort of Olympic spirit's definitely bitten me and I'm excited how this week's turned out and excited for the future.”

Next up: WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational, Barracuda Championship

The PGA Tour schedule resumes this week with the World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational as well as the Tour’s alternate event, the Barracuda Championship.

Team USA’s Justin Thomas will make the trip from Tokyo to Memphis, Tenn., looking to defend his 2020 title while 2019 winner, Brooks Koepka, will make his first start since his T-6 finish at the 149th Open Championship. Also in the field at TPC Southwinds is Bryson DeChambeau, who tested positive for COVID-19 and withdrew from the Olympic competition. However, world No. 2 Jon Rahm, who also tested positive prior to the Games, will not be in the field.

The Barracuda Championship, the Tour’s only modified stableford event, returns to Tahoe Mountain Club's Old Greenwood golf course in Truckee, Calif., where three Olympians -- Mito Pereira, Rafa Campos and Thomas Pieters – are set to tee it up. Last year, Richy Werenski holed a pitch from the fairway on the 16th hole Sunday for a five-point eagle and added a birdie on the 72nd hole for a one-point victory over Troy Merritt.

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