Why Xander Schauffele gold medal the next best thing for Japan after home favourite Hideki Matsuyama struggles

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 (AP)
(AP)

With Hideki Matsuyama, Japan’s first male major winner, starting the morning just one shot off the lead, the host nation was hoping for home glory on Sunday at the Kasumigaseki Country Club. In the end, it had to settle for perhaps the next best thing.

Not the drama of an epic, seven-man playoff - larger than any in PGA Tour history - which eventually saw Pan Cheng-tsung claim bronze. Rather the sight of Xander Schauffele on the top step of the podium, an American whose mother was raised in Japan from the age of two and whose grandparents still live only miles from here in Tokyo.

Long considered the next cab off the rank as far as a maiden Major triumph is concerned, the 27-year-old remains yet to break his duck, despite a phenomenal record of nine top tens in his 18 starts, and so this might just be the biggest win of his young career.

Except, for Schauffele, this was not exactly the realisation of his Olympic dream - only months ago he had been unsure about taking up his spot on the US team - but that of his father, a decathlete with Olympic aspirations in his younger days until his hopes were cruelly shattered by a drunk driver in a car accident. It was he who talked his son round.

For a while, Schauffele was in danger of turning this sun-baked, storm-free final round into a formality, with birdies on each of the opening two holes to extend his overnight lead and four in a flawless front-nine.

 (REUTERS)
(REUTERS)

So good, though, was eventual silver medalist Rory Sabbatini’s ten-under round that Schauffele’s sole error of the day, a bogey on 14, was enough to cost him the outright lead. He did not regain it until, with the Slovakian well-settled in the clubhouse, a birdie at 17 and wonderful approach at the last sealed gold.

When he had last played in Japan, at the Zozo Championship in 2019, Schauffele had had dozens of extended family members in the crowd. Here, not only was that support missing, but those who were allowed on course were very obviously behind his playing partner instead.

Matsuyama rather stumbled into the role of poster boy of Tokyo 2020, his status only beginning to transcend a sport that is not exactly front-and-centre of the Olympic programme after victory in a Masters tournament that would have succeeded the Games by nine months had they gone ahead on time last year. His Blackpool deckchair outfits on tour might scream eccentricity, but he is known to be an unassuming, reserved character.

Still, the 25-year-old brought with him the same pressure of playing in a home Games as a global star that had so dogged Naomi Osaka, though crucially, not the same level of expectation; golf is, after all, a sport where in-form Major champions routinely start tournaments at double figure odds, where consistency is measured by top-10s and 20s, not wins.

 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

Matsuyama’s form since Augusta has bee been little to write home about and missing the Open with Covid was hardly the ideal preparation either, but superb rounds of 69, 64 and 67 this week had seen momentum rebuilt and had his putter not deserted him at some key moments here things might have been different.

There were times on the back-nine when you allowed your mind to wander, not only to Matsuyama’s likeness blazed on every billboard in the city, but also etched in the memories of every Japanese man, woman and child as the defining image of the Games, their hometown golfing hero cloaked in a green jacket, adorned with a medallion of gold.

Whatever the Japanese for ‘Get in the hole’ is, the cry was getting progressively louder as he tried desperately to close the gap on Schauffele, but nothing would quite drop. On the 18th green, soon to become a familiar setting, both he and Team GB’s Paul Casey had chances to seal bronze outright but neither could oblige.

That pair fell first in the seven-man ding-dong, leaving the rest to contest a second playoff hole, the par-three 10th. With fans absent and many venues eerily empty at these Games, the five golfers and their caddies in line, waiting to tee-off, made up just about the longest queue you’d seen anywhere since leaving the airport.

Across the course of that hole and the replayed 11th, Rory McIlory, Sebastian Munoz and, unluckiest of all, Mito Pereira fell by the wayside to leave Pan and Open champion Collin Morikawa heading up the 18th for the third time this afternoon.

The man from Chinese Tapei prevailed finally, and deservedly so, after seeing putts for victory miss by inches on the first and second extra holes, then matching Morikawa’s stunning approach on the third, when the American must have thought bronze was his.

And so, two hours after two-thirds of the podium had been filled, it was finally complete. It didn’t quite look as the hosts had hoped, but somewhere in Tokyo tonight, there will still be a few very happy locals.

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