KAWAGOE, Japn — Golf’s biggest trophies tend to be silver and green. Xander Schauffele knows this as well as anyone because he has been close enough to dream of winning them.
No one doubted his impressive skill set or questioned why he has been in or around the top 10 in the world for nearly three years. All that was missing was that signature win.
An Olympic gold medal around his neck might be all it takes.
“I needed to get over the hump,” Schauffele said, and he did just that Sunday with as much pressure as he has ever felt. Tied for the lead with two holes to play, he made a 6-foot birdie on the 17th and then got up-and-down from 98 yards for par and a one-shot victory.
He moved to No. 4 in the world.
It was his fifth victory, but the first time he started the final round with the lead. And it ended just over 18 months without a trophy, dating to the first tournament of 2019.
He was a runner-up to Tiger Woods at the Masters in 2019. He had the flu and still got into a playoff later that year against Rory McIlroy in Shanghai. What really stung was having the low score at the Tour Championship last September without getting a trophy.
Under a new format based on FedEx Cup standings, Schauffele started the tournament seven shots behind. It showed up as a win in the world ranking but not the trophy case.
“That bothered me and my team. They know more than anyone else I’ve been knocking on the door a lot,” Schauffele said. “And so you get that taste of winning and then it gets swiped from you and you’re a little bit sour, even if you’re playing really good golf. So for me, this was a really big point for me in my career to have a lead and be able to cap it off.
“Every time I watch someone do it on TV it looks hard,” he said. “And today was hard.”
For a sport that has produced major champions from every continent where golf is played, the new Olympic champion represents the international aspect of golf as much as anyone.
“I’m the only natural-born citizen in my family,” said Schauffele, born and raised in San Diego, and newly married. “Me being very international, it’s taught me a lot about different culture, and it’s made me very understanding of different cultures. I think if everyone had the ability to travel more and experience other cultures, they would be more willing to get along, potentially.”
Schauffele made his professional debut in Japan. He laughed while talking about his grandparents coming to San Diego when he was a kid and how the suitcase “smelled like Japan.”
“I don’t know how to describe it,” he said. “But every time I come here, I really appreciate the culture and how kind and respectful everyone is. And I think I speak for everyone and all the players in this field. And so there was a comfort for me.”
A German journalist approached his father, Stefan, early in the final round for a brief interview in his native language. Schauffele was still posing for pictures with Rory Sabbatini (silver) and C.T. Pan (bronze) when his father was chatting in Japanese on a video call with his wife.
How many languages?
“It gets easier after the sixth,” Stefan Schauffele said.
The father was allowed at Kasumigaskei Country Club as a coach, and that wasn’t just a title to get through the gates. He’s the only coach his son has ever had.
His Olympic dream ended before he knew how good he could become. Blindness cost him the joy of the physical sports he loved. And then he discovered golf, intrigued by a game in which the ball doesn’t move until struck.
He became an assistant pro in Hawaii and eventually passed the game to his son.
Stefan Schauffele watches with a monocular, always some 200 yards away, able to see where the ball is going based on the swing. He looks as flat-lined as his son.
“I’m an observer,” he said. “This is the process. When it’s over, I’m sure it will be emotional.”
It was every bit of that.
As the anthem played and the flags were raised, the father leaned against a tree next to the 18th green and soaked up the ultimate Olympic experience.
“Because of what happened to me, I promised myself I will make sure my kids will find out how good they are at whatever they’re trying to do. In this case, it was golf,” Stefan said. “It’s a continuous process. But it’s fueled by the fact I never found out how good I was.”
As for his son? Everyone should have a better sense of that now.
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