Tokyo 2020

Xander Schauffele and his father share gold medal dreams

Around The Games - Olympics: Day 3
TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 26: Xander Schauffele of Team USA practices at Kasumigaseki Country Club ahead of the Tokyo Olympic Games on July 26, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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Earlier this year, Xander Schauffele was somewhat lukewarm toward competing in the Olympic Games. The 32nd Olympiad would be contested in a busy window near the finish of the PGA TOUR season, wedged between the year’s final major and a World Golf Championship, with the FedExCup Playoffs right around the corner. COVID-19 still was in play, and Tokyo is a long, long way to travel.

Schauffele – measured, wise and mature beyond his 27 years – eventually decided he would step back and seek the counsel of his father. Stefan Schauffele is the only swing coach Xander has ever had and once had Olympic aspirations of his own, dreaming of representing Germany in the decathlon.

Xander weighs all the big decisions in life by taking the pragmatic, 30,000-foot view of the situation. He posed one blunt question to himself: "If I don’t go to the Olympics, will I regret my decision?"

The more Xander sorted through all the pros and cons and sifted through the emotions swirling inside, the more he thought about being States-side and watching his peers on television competing for gold. From there, the answer came easily. He was headed to Japan. He needed to be there.

“It’s a big deal to be an Olympian,” he said.

Here we are, on the threshold of golf’s second consecutive appearance in the Olympics after a hiatus that stretched more than a century, and there is little reason to think Schauffele will not find his way into the mix. He tends to rise on the bigger stages, ever since emerging on the weekend leaderboard at the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills. That was his very first major, and his tie for fifth would spark a memorable rookie summer on the PGA TOUR.

Consider Schauffele’s record at the U.S. Open, an event that prides itself on its difficulty: In five starts, he has finished no worse than seventh. Pretty stout. Schauffele has been in the mix on Sunday twice at the Masters, including this April’s edition, and made a spirited run at the 2018 Open Championship at Carnoustie. In 18 major starts, he has been in the top 10 in half, and owns six top-5 finishes. In his first opportunity to represent the U.S. in Presidents Cup play two years ago, Schauffele took down seasoned Australian Adam Scott at Royal Melbourne to collect a key Sunday singles point in a tight U.S. road victory.

Schauffele was a nice surprise found in the back pages of the PGA TOUR’s decorated high school yearbook of 2011. He didn’t arrive with the accolades or pedigree that Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas had. While those two led a pair of powerhouse programs to NCAA titles, Schauffele started his college career in relative anonymity at little Long Beach State before transferring to San Diego State.

In fact, when Schauffele made it to his first TOUR Championship at the end of 2017, he had yet to even meet Spieth or Thomas. He was something of an interloper, having reached East Lake on the tiniest thread after playing his final six holes of the previous week’s BMW Championship in 6 under to nail down the 30th and final spot at East Lake. He left Atlanta with the tournament trophy -- leaping to third in the FedExCup standings -- and was voted Rookie of the Year.

Ask Schauffele, and he’ll tell you he should win more. He has four victories in 114 PGA TOUR starts, but none since the 2019 Sentry Tournament of Champions.

He can look across his record of the last two seasons and take pride in the consistency, however. He has finished outside the top 25 just six times in his last 36 TOUR starts and has eight top-3s in that span, though no wins. It’s been good enough to propel him to No. 5 in the world. With eight U.S. players residing in the top 10 of the world ranking, and only four spots available on the U.S. Olympic team, making this squad in itself was a tall accomplishment.

Schauffele even gets credit for Phil Mickelson’s record-setting win in this year’s PGA Championship, inspiring the now-51-year-old by beating him in matches during the COVID-19 lockdown. After winning at Kiawah Island, Mickelson recalled how Schauffele shot 64-63-62 in three successive matches. The last victory included an ace on the second-to-last hole after Mickelson had hit it to 4 feet on the 220-yard, par-3.

“I went back and talked to Amy and I'm like, ‘I don't know how I'm going to beat this guy. He's probably playing the best of any player in the world right now,’” Mickelson said. “I saw what it looked like to play at the highest level."

Olympic gold certainly would be a nice way to end his victory drought. Heck, heading home with any medal would be terrific. Schauffele will tee it up at Kasumigaseki Country Club outside Tokyo perhaps as well-represented culturally as any player in the field. His mother, Ping-Wi Chen, is from Chinese Taipei, but was raised in Japan. Her parents – Xander’s grandparents – live in Japan, not far from where Xander will compete. He has visited Japan “10 or 12 times,” he estimates, and is very comfortable there. (“It’s a place I hold dear to me,” he said.)

Stefan, a man of French-German ancestry, was making progress as a decathlete when, at 20, he was involved in a horrific car accident, struck by a drunken driver. The impact of the crash cost Stefan his vision in his left eye, and it led to two years of surgeries. Stefan would move to California, and became consumed with golf, learning and tinkering and becoming a pretty good player himself. In 15 months, he became a scratch player.

Stefan’s advice often extends beyond his son’s swing. Though the two laugh about the conflicts that can arise because of their stubborn natures – especially during Stefan’s short-lived career as his son’s caddie – the elder Schauffele is quick to dole out fatherly wisdom and encouragement.

He once told Xander that confidence is like a little plant; it takes forever to grow, and can be stomped out in seconds. Heeding those words, just imagine how empowered Xander felt four years ago upon finishing fifth at Erin Hills in his national championship. “The plant grew pretty fast,” Xander said. “It almost turned into a tree, actually.”

With strict COVID-19 restrictions in place for Olympians in Tokyo, most family members of the Olympic athletes are reduced to watching the competition on television. There will be no galleries allowed for the golf. As Xander’s coach, Stefan will be on the grounds, able to watch every shot. If the father could not fulfill his own Olympic quest, having his son compete beneath the iconic Olympic rings is the next best thing. The dream lives on.

“It’s sort of an opportunity that I didn’t have,” Stefan said, “and now I get to live it because he has it. It’s a little sad that … we can’t go anywhere (to see other sports). So it’s harder to get the Olympic spirit, if you will. But we’ll manage to get some of it once we are there.”

Golf at the Olympics? When Schauffele started to make his way in the game a junior, it was yet to be a reality. Golf isn’t like most of the more established Olympic sports. In terms of building Olympic tradition, it remains in the starting blocks.

“Deep down, I’m not going to lie,” Schauffele said, “growing up it was all about watching major championships and Tiger Woods in red on Sundays. When my head hit the pillow at night, that’s what I envisioned. It wasn’t being an Olympian. It wasn’t in the cards.

“A gold medal? That’s something I’ve dreamt of more recently. … I think it would be cool to say you have a gold medal – or any kind of medal – from the Olympics.”

Very cool indeed. It certainly would validate the decision he made to go all the way to Japan, and having the honor of representing his country, as a wise one.

No regrets.

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