KAWAGOE, Japan (AP) – The day Justin Rose won golf’s first Olympic gold medal in more than a century, Xander Schauffele was toiling in anonymity in the heartland of America.
Schauffele tied for fourth on the PGA Tour’s feeder circuit that day in a tournament called the Price Cutter Charity Championship in Springfield, Missouri. He won $29,700 and moved to No. 427 in the world.
Five years later, no one should be surprised to see him at Kasumigaseki Country Club in a white shirt with a navy blue “USA” in block letters of the left side. He is No. 5 in the world, a regular contender at the majors and now an Olympian.
For Americans, it’s the toughest team to make in golf.
Countries can send a maximum of four players, provided they are among the top 15 in the world ranking. The Americans currently have 16 of the top 25 in the world. The U.S. is the only country with more than the minimum two players in the Tokyo Olympics.
“Our qualifications system is simple,” Schauffele said. “We just play our normal schedule, and if you beat everyone else, you get to qualify.”
He made it sound simpler than it really is.
There are no Olympic trials, where one misstep could wipe out four years of hard work. Instead, it’s four years of trying to reach the highest level and staying there while the competition gets younger, longer and deeper every season.
It’s not very dramatic. It doesn’t always make for great theater. It’s no less difficult.
But then, golf remains a peculiar fit on the Olympic program, still in its infancy after returning in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 following a 112-year absence.
The most obvious difference is the value of an Olympic medal, which doesn’t stack up to the four major championships. That can depend on the country, of course. Henrik Stenson got more attention in Sweden for the silver medal he won in the 2016 Olympics than he did for the silver claret jug he won a month earlier at the British Open.
There are other distinctions. Unlike most Olympic sports, golf has no clear-cut favorites, nothing that can be classified as a major upset if someone isn’t on the podium. Nearly half of the 60-man field at Kasumigaseki has either won on the PGA Tour or played in a Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup. All are capable.
“Golf is a different sport,” said Corey Conners of Canada. “A lot of people are playing for those medals. And I think some days you have it, some days you don’t. Anyone can have a good week at any time.”
Hideki Matsuyama had his week at the Masters. Phil Mickelson was 50 when he had his week at the PGA Championship to become golf’s oldest major champion. Neither has finished among the top 20 in any tournament he has played since.
The Olympics is no exception, and that’s why just getting here is the hard part.
It might take several more years for players to appreciate that. Golf hasn’t returned under the best of circumstances, with the Zika virus in Brazil causing top players to bail in 2016, and the coronavirus keeping some players (Jon Rahm, Bryson DeChambeau) and all spectators away in Japan.
But as golf gets younger, the Olympics start to take root. British Open champion Collin Morikawa was barely out of high school during the last Olympics.
“It’s so fresh and so new,” Schauffele said. “And fortunately, Collin and I are young, and so when we talk to you, it is exciting, it is very cool, it is something we want to do - winning a gold medal and representing the USA correctly. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t feel that way and feel strongly about it.”
There is additional meaning for Schauffele that goes beyond the 422 spots in the world ranking he has climbed since the last Olympics.
This is as much about his father.
Stefan Schauffele was 20 when he was invited to take part in decathlon training with the German national team. On his way to the training site, he was hit by a drunk driver. His Olympic dream died that day. Along with having two years’ worth of surgeries, he lost his left eye.
The father eventually moved to San Diego and wound up living next to a golf course, intrigued by a sport in which the ball didn’t move. He was so hooked that he became an assistant pro on the Hawaiian island of Kauai and remains the only coach his son ever had.
For the father, an Olympic experience arrived in a way he never saw coming.
“Dreams come true - his and mine,” Stefan Schauffele once said. “They’re the same dreams, to climb as high as you can in your sport, which was denied to me because of an accident. To be able as a father to see your son rise, it’s wonderful.”
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