A PGA Star Wins Gold in Golf, an Event Unmoored From the Games
Written by tokyoclub on August 4, 2021
KAWAGOE, Japan — 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 sound stages, 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, 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 on 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 par, 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. 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 athletes’ 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 female 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 on Wednesday.
Rules from the club’s etiquette and fellowship committee are serious and precise. Shorts may be worn on the course, but only with knee-high socks and not upon arrival. (“Anything too long or too short is not allowed.”) Shirt collars may be up during play, but “the collar should be turned down in the clubhouse.”
Sweating is a concern: “In the heat of the summer players are asked to have the courtesy to change their shirt and trousers before entering the dining room, to prevent leaving a damp seat for the next guest,” according to the club’s dress code guide.
Kasumigaseki is a place of dignity and ambulatory tradition. “A caddie will accompany each group during a round, which as a rule should be played on foot,” the club states. “Golf carts are available, such as for players over the age of 80.”
(President Donald J. Trump used a cart in 2017 when he played here, with Matsuyama and Shinzo Abe, who was Japan’s prime minister. Trump was 71 and, according to news reports, followed his round “with a plate of hamburgers.”)
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 on Thursday, the tee box was surrounded by volunteers, who then dispersed around the course to their stations.
On Sunday, Matsuyama, Japan’s latest golfing hero, was given a similarly robust send-off from the first tee, on a course where he played and won big events as a junior.
His group was followed through the heat and humidity by about 100 people, most of them photographers and reporters, others part of the brigade of volunteers. Next to the fourth tee, a couple dozen people stood outside a chain-link fence, trying to get a peek.
Matsuyama needed the encouragement. Birdies were sandwiched by bogeys, and he missed several short putts in the final holes that might have earned him bronze, if not better.
Hundreds of the volunteers congregated at the 18th green, where other volunteers held laminated placards requesting the wearing of masks (no problem) and social distancing (a bit of a problem) in the hope of seeing Matsuyama earn a medal.
Instead, he joined the playoff — which included McIlroy, Casey and Morikawa — and exited quickly, leaving without a medal.
Pan eventually earned the bronze on the 18th green, the fourth playoff hole, in the long shadows of the late afternoon.
Schauffele and Sabbatini already knew the color of their prizes. Schauffele had broken a tie with a birdie at 17 and clinched the title with a par putt at 18, in front of hundreds of volunteers hoping to see Matsuyama earn something besides a “T3” on the leaderboard.
More than most, Schauffele was excited by the prospect of an Olympic title. He had arrived with an Olympic back story.
His father, Stefan, 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. He survived, but he was blinded in one eye by a broken piece of windshield, ending his athletic hopes. Stefan Schauffele, who was allowed to attend as a coach, followed his son around the course on Sunday. He embraced his son shortly after the victory and sat near the front of the room during the postmatch 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 a hundred 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.