No, it wasn’t quite any of that, somehow.
The meaning of this turn of Olympic golf ended up being that the gold medal went to that man for all nations, the polyglot delight from San Diego who stood for one national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but could have stood for several. This 27-year-old with the Californian ease and the Taiwanese mother raised in Japan and the French-German father finally won a big-deal tournament after inveterate contention in golf majors, whereupon he gave an Olympian answer to an Olympian question about the values of multi-nationalism and travel upon this planet.
“I think that I can just use myself as an example,” Xander Schauffele said after one-shot win over Rory Sabbatini, the South Africa-born, 45-year-old multinational playing for Slovakia. “I’m the only natural-born citizen in my family [of four], being born in the United States … I think that being very international, it’s taught me a lot about different cultures and it’s made me very understanding of different cultures. I think that if everyone sort of had the ability to travel more and experience other cultures, they would be more willing to get along, potentially.”
Schauffele’s 18-under-par four-round score that held off Sabbatini’s whoa of a 61 might wind up with some longer-term relevance, given the way he managed the tempest between the temples. Those nine top-10 finishes in his first 18 majors in life had served as both impressive and frustrating for the lack of a win, such that he could say, “I usually look very calm, but there’s something terrible happening inside at times,” and, “I was kind of stuck in a gear overthinking, overcomplicating certain moments.”
Entering the final two holes of an event he desperately wanted — a terrible way to go about the brutal art of golf — Schauffele was tied with Sabbatini at 17 under. His earlier three-shot lead had gone vamoose, especially with an episode on No. 14 when he almost disappeared in the woods hunting his ball, with only the white pants of his backside visible.
Well, he birdied No. 17 and parred No. 18. He drove all the way into the sand by the green on the 343-yard, par-4 No. 17, then sent a violin of a wedge to six feet and birdied for the lead. He sliced to the right on No. 18, “a terrible drive” toward “a sort of sloppy par,” but whacked out of mild rough and stood 98 yards away and produced a whole string quartet of an approach shot to four feet.
He waited and waited for others to hit, and: “I just reminded myself, this is just a four-footer. All you have to do is make it, no big deal.”
It plunked in without drama, and: “Just in shock. I was trying so hard to stay calm.”
At an Olympics almost entirely bereft of family hugs, he hugged his French-German father and longtime coach, Stefan — “I can’t really say what we said to each other; that’s just from a point of swearing,” Xander said — and they would beam at each other later from the dais of the interview room to the second row where sat Stefan in sunglasses.
Before all that, though, seven players of seven different Olympic nationalities had to sort out the bloody bronze. All had finished 15 under par, with the home standing Hideki Matsuyama suffering enough narrow misses of late putts to stoke years of interrupted sleep. There they went, the lot of them, four in one group and three in the next, a mass of talent that included reigning British Open champion Collin Morikawa, reigning Masters champion Matsuyama and four-time major champion Rory McIlroy.
“I’ve been saying all day I never tried so hard in my life to finish third,” McIlroy said.
Rankings-wise, they were No. 3 Morikawa of the United States, No. 13 McIlroy of Ireland, No. 20 Matsuyama of Japan, No. 22 Paul Casey of Britain, No. 82 Sebastian Munoz of Colombia, No. 118 Mito Pereira of Chile and No. 208 Cheng Tsung Pan of Taiwan. On their first hole (No. 18), they shed Casey and Matsuyama, the latter left to rue his galling four-foot par miss on No. 15, among other matters.
The leftover five went to No. 10. All parred it. They went to No. 11, where Morikawa and Pan sent dreamy approaches to arrange birdies, so the quintet lost McIlroy, Munoz and Pereira. Then at the corner of lo and behold, Morikawa buried an approach on No. 18 in the sand so that only a sliver of the ball peeked out. He whacked out gamely, but never did get it down as Pan got out of his own trouble on the left of the green and drained an eight-footer for an up-and-down par.
The lowest-ranked of the seven had prevailed.
“It came as surprise to me, too,” Pan said. “After day one, plus three, 74, I remember I texted my good friend and I was like, ‘The struggle is real.’”
Yet he had burned a 63 in the heat while playing alongside Sabbatini, both with their wives as caddies, and the Slovakian citizen through marriage cooking up that 10-under-par 61 featuring six back-nine birdies and even two bogeys somehow. “It sounds quite amazing,” he said of the silver. “It doesn’t sound like it belongs to me. But crazy game, this sport we play.” And he added later, “I think in a sense I thought I was so far out of it I didn’t have any expectations” — seven behind leader Schauffele at the outset Sunday — “so I just went and kind of went back to how I used to be when I was in my 20s and played aggressive golf.”
It almost upended the winner, but the winner turned out to be an ultimate Olympian, a man from San Diego and from Earth. He’s a guy who can say, “When you open a suitcase, you can almost kind of smell sort of where you come from, and I can always tell whenever my grandparents, a long time ago, used to travel to San Diego when I was a kid, it always smelled like Japan.”
He could look over at the bronze medalist and say, as an American, “Yeah, my fellow countryman right next to me. My mom was born in Taiwan, so actually by blood I’m half-Taiwanese.”
And beside all of that, Schauffele could sort out a big chunk of his own struggle, highbrow as it may have been, so when they finished the anthem and the medalists removed their masks for photos, he flashed a humongous California smile all filled with Taiwan and Japan and France and Germany.
Yeah, that was the best.