A PGA star wins gold in golf, an event unmoored from the Games
At times, the final day of the Olympic tournament had the feel of a midweek practice round.
By John Branch
There were few clues that the Olympic men’s golf tournament had anything in common with the 32 other sports at the Tokyo Summer Games.
Among them were the tee markers in the shape of Olympics rings, the peculiar need to hold a tiebreaker for third place (clumsily, among seven golfers) and the shiny gold medal hanging from the neck of Xander Schauffele of the United States.
Beyond that, strolling around the quiet and sweltering grounds of a suburban Japanese country club, it might have been confused for a midweek practice round in New Jersey.
The Olympics in Tokyo already feel as if they are taking place on a series of television soundstages, devoid of fans and atmosphere, inside and out. But no place has felt as disconnected, physically and spiritually, as the men’s golf event, held at an exclusive private club more than an hour’s drive from the city center and contested mostly by spectacularly rich and famous touring pros.
Back in Tokyo on Sunday, near the heart of the pandemic-muted Olympics, medals were awarded to mostly unsung athletes in sports like fencing, swimming, weight lifting, gymnastics and BMX. In one BMX discipline on Friday, a gold medalist from Britain was competing only because she had crowdfunded her training.
The final group to tee off at Kasumigaseki Country Club in Kawagoe, meanwhile, featured Schauffele, Hideki Matsuyama and Paul Casey, who have combined career earnings of $90.8 million, according to the PGA Tour. Behind them was Rory McIlroy, No. 6 on the career list, with $56.9 million in career money.
But only Schauffele, ranked fifth in the world golf rankings and having come close in a string of major tournaments, can claim the Olympic gold medal as a career highlight.
“I maybe put more pressure on myself wanting to win this more than anything else for quite some time,” Schauffele said.
Among those he fended off was Matsuyama, who won the Masters in April when Schauffele was his final-round playing partner. The roles were flipped Sunday, as Schauffele carried a one-stroke lead to the first tee, and Matsuyama never caught up.
Schauffele needed a 4-foot par putt on the 18th hole to finish at 18-under, one stroke ahead of 45-year-old Rory Sabbatini, who shot a 10-under 61 on Sunday. Born in South Africa and a resident of Florida, Sabbatini was representing Slovakia, the kind of team-swapping quirk that made golf feel a tad bit more Olympian than usual.
The tournament took a zany turn at the end, with a seven-man playoff necessary to determine the sole recipient of the bronze medal. Eventually, C.T. Pan of Taiwan claimed it in a head-to-head battle with Collin Morikawa of the United States.
Golf was reintroduced for the 2016 Rio Games after a 112-year absence. Justin Rose won for the men, Inbee Park for the women, but it was hardly popular and not particularly memorable.
One belated Olympics later, it still feels like a strange fit.
In most Olympic sports, athletes spend years fighting for the right to compete. But in golf, plenty of the world’s top players declined to come, unwilling to fit it into their schedules.
The players who came may return home as advocates. Justin Thomas of the United States, disappointed in finishing in a tie for 22nd, said he visited the Olympic Village a couple of times and was glad he participated. He compared it favorably in meaning to even the Ryder Cup.
“I’m more proud of being here than I thought I would be,” he said.
But most golfers did not participate in the usual Olympic festivities, like living in the village or walking in the opening ceremony. They stayed sequestered close to the course as they would with any other tournament. How to couple them more tightly to the rest of the Olympics and the spirit of the Olympic movement remains a quandary.
Kasumigaseki is the most revered course in Japan. Built in 1929, it was the site of a 1957 international team tournament won by Japan. That year, Torakichi Nakamura crushed a field that included Gary Player and Sam Snead. His victory helped start Japan’s golf boom.
Comparisons to Augusta National, home of the Masters, are apt. Kasumigaseki did not allow women members until 2017, four years after it was named as the host for the Tokyo Olympic tournament. The women’s Olympic event will be played there, beginning Wednesday.
Players on Sunday had caddies, of course, with Olympic logos on their bibs. Players wore shirts in their nation’s colors, some more declarative than others. Those from Germany, Belgium and India, for example, had their country’s name in large letters on their backs.
Other signs were subtle, beyond the grandstands left empty by Japan’s state of emergency. Players struck balls into greens surrounded not by fans, but mostly by more empty grass.
There was a large, colorful set of Olympic rings planted near the putting green outside the clubhouse. Another set of rings was sprayed in white between a tee box and a water hazard. It could have been mistaken for a confusing drop area.
It was a bit like redecorating a palatial mansion with a few new throw pillows. Blue-shirted volunteers gamely tried to inject some Olympic spirit. When Japan’s Rikuya Hoshino struck the tournament’s opening shot Thursday, the tee box was surrounded by volunteers, who then dispersed around the course to their stations.
More than most, Schauffele was excited by the prospect of an Olympic title. He had arrived with an Olympic backstory.
His father, Stefan Schauffele, had hoped to compete in the Olympics in track and field decades ago, when his car was struck by a drunken driver in Stuttgart, Germany. Stefan survived, but he was blinded in one eye by a broken piece of windshield, ending his athletic hopes. Stefan, who was allowed to attend as a coach, followed his son around the course Sunday. He embraced his son shortly after the victory and sat near the front of the room during the post-match news conference.
Schauffele’s mother, Ping-Yi Chen, was born in Taiwan and raised in Japan. If not for the pandemic, Schauffele might have had 100 other relatives in the gallery.
Instead, he moved around mostly in heat and silence. Important titles in the age of the pandemic have been won in a variety of environments.
But this was the Olympics, at least in name. It says so, right on the gold medal.