Gold marks the spot for Xander Schauffele.
The 27-year-old American birdied three of his first five holes to build as many as a four-stroke lead and made a late birdie to hang on to win the men’s individual stroke play competition at the Tokyo Olympics.
“Man, it was stressful,” he said. “And I made that putt and it was just a huge weight lifted off my shoulders and just very relieved and happy, of course.”
Schauffele closed with a final-round 4-under 67 at the East Course at Kasumigaseki Country Club, in Saitama, Japan, about 35 miles northwest of downtown Tokyo, for a 72-hole total of 18-under 266 and a one-stroke victory over Slovakia’s Rory Sabbatini.
Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, the first Asian to win the Masters, had his chance to win gold in his homeland. He and Schauffele played in their first final group since April at Augusta National. Trailing by one stroke entering the final day, Matsuyama fell five strokes behind after topping a fairway wood from the rough and making bogey at the par-5 eighth hole, but didn’t go down without a fight.
“I have no energy or endurance left at this point,” said Matsuyama, who tested positive for COVID-19 only weeks prior to the Olympics. “But I kept fighting at the end with my heart.”
He closed to within one stroke of the lead late in the round, but his putter let him down. He lipped out for a 3-putt bogey at 15 and missed a 12-foot birdie putt at 18 that would have earned him a bronze medal. He shot 2-under 69, good for 15-under 269, and bowed out after the first hole of a seven-way playoff for the bronze that also included Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, USA’s Collin Morikawa, England’s Paul Casey, Columbia’s Sebastian Munoz, Chile’s Mito Pereira and Chinese-Taipei’s C.T. Pan.
“I never tried so hard in my life to finish third,” McIlroy said.
It took four extra holes, but ultimately it was Pan, who shot 74 in the opening round, beating just two players before capping off a furious rally with a final-round 63 and outlasted them all for the bronze.
Schauffele overcame a jittery passage when he flared his tee shot at the par-5 14thhole into trouble, had to take a penalty for an unplayable, and his backswing on his next shot struck branches as he escaped the trees.
“It got a little dicey there,” he said. “When you’re trying to win you need some things to go your way. I took a pretty big risk trying to hack it through a bush. I missed my gap. I literally did the Matrix through these trees. Today was definitely my day.”