Posted on August 1, 2021 7:11am EDT
Updated on August 1, 2021 7:13 AM EDT
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By DOUG FERGUSON, AP Golf Writer
KAWAGO, Japan — One meter between his golf ball and the cup was all that separated Xander Schauffele from an Olympic gold medal, and he couldn’t help but let his mind wander.
For Schauffele, it would be as special as a major, the championships that have eluded him far too often, most recently at the Masters. For his father, an Olympic medal to share after his own ambitions ended in a horrific car accident that cost him his left eye.
Schauffele bowed his head and closed his eyes to jump back into the present.
“I just reminded myself that this is only a 4-footer,” he said on Sunday. “All you have to do is make it. No problem.”
He made it. It was a big problem.
With more pressure than he needed, Schauffele got the prize he wanted in a close of men’s golf so wild that nine players were still in the mix for a medal when the last three players measured their putts on the 18th green.
The putt that mattered most was Schauffele’s, who had to be close to the water and rely on a wedge and putt for par and a 4-under 67.
“Maybe I’m putting more pressure on myself because I want to win this more than anything,” he said. “And with my dad, for quite some time he devoted a large part of his life to getting a medal, and that was taken from him. … It was more than just golf for me. And I’m just really, really happy and happy to sit here.”
Rory Sabbatini set an Olympic record with a 61 – with two bogeys on his card – which was almost good enough for a ‘sudden-death play-off’ for the gold. He was more than happy to win the silver medal for Slovakia.
The bronze? Well, that was complicated.
Hideki Matsuyama put an end to his dream of adding gold to a green Masters jacket by missing too many putts down the back nine at Kasumigaseki Country Club. He still had a 12-foot birdie putt for the bronze on the final hole. He missed that too, ending up in a seven-man play-off between players from seven countries for the final medal.
Matsuyama, along with Paul Casey, was knocked out with a bogey on the first extra hole.
Less than a month away from recovering from COVID-19, the Japanese star was one shot out of the lead with four holes left to play, and finished without a medal.
No gold, silver or bronze. He still has a green coat.
Rory McIlroy, Mito Pereira and Sebastian Munoz were bounced back with pars on the third playoff hole. That left CT Pan and British Open champion Collin Morikawa, who both shot 63, and Pan won with an 8-foot par.
Stefan Schauffele watched the medal ceremony from the 18th green, tears behind dark sunglasses as his son hung the medal around his neck.
The father was 20 when he was invited to train as a decathlete with the German national team. He was hit by a drunk driver, an accident that left him blind in one eye and unable to participate in the sports he loved.
Finally, he found golf, which he passed on to his son.
“Because of what happened to me, I made a promise to myself that I will make sure that my children will discover how good they are at whatever they try to do. In this case it was golf,’ said the father. “That was fueled by the fact that I never found out how good I was.”
Schauffele, whose mother grew up in Japan and has grandparents in town who couldn’t watch him under the spectator ban, seemed to have won this all along.
Sabbatini finished with a fist-pumping birdie on the 18th hole. That put him one shot behind Schauffele, who had six holes to go and two good scoring opportunities.
And then one swing changed everything.
Schauffele sent his tee shot well to the right of the fairway on the par-5 14th into the bushes. He had to take a one-shot penalty to get out, took three more shots to reach the green and made a 5-foot putt for bogey.
He held onto the lead, with Matsuyama one shot behind.
Schauffele kept his California cool and delivered two clutch putts at the end.
“I tried so hard to just stay calm,” Schauffele said. “But man, it was stressful. And I made that putt and it was just a huge weight off my shoulders.”
Sabbatini had enough to be happy about with silver. Born in South Africa, he decided to become a Slovak citizen in late 2018 through his wife, Martina, who had a relative who ran the small Slovak Gulf Federation. His wife caddied for him this week.
As a result, he qualified for the Olympics and now Slovakia has its third medal at the Tokyo Games. It has a gold in women’s trap and a silver in men’s kayak. Sabbatini is the first Slovak to participate in Olympic golf.
“Its sole purpose was to generate future generations of Slovak golfers,” said Sabbatini. “It’s not exactly the sport for kids to grow up and want to play in Slovakia, so hopefully we can inspire future Olympians.”
More AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2020-tokyo-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
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