Xander Schauffele, Hideki Matsuyama meet again with gold medal at stake
July 31, 2021
By Sean Martin , PGATOUR.COM
- Xander Schauffele and Hideki Matsuyama practice at Kasumigaseki Country Club. (Keyur Khamar/PGA TOUR)
KAWAGOE, Japan – Xander and Stefan Schauffele walked side-by-side up the paved path that led toward Kasumigaseki Country Club’s clubhouse. They walked past the oversized Olympic rings and straight to the driving range.
A half-hour earlier, Xander had birdied his final hole of the day – hitting a 175-yard approach to 3 feet – to take the solo lead in the Olympic men’s golf competition. There was still work to do. Xander made that clear from the start of his post-round interview.
“I need to go hit the range, unfortunately,” he said in reply to the first question of the press conference. “I'll be as quick as possible in here.”
Xander didn’t hit a fairway until his eighth hole Saturday. Despite struggling with his driver, he scrambled to a 3-under 68. His total score of 14-under 199 (68-63-68) is one shot better than Hideki Matsuyama, the Masters champion who is playing on home turf.
These Olympics have extra meaning for Matsuyama, who won the Japan Junior at Kasumigaseki 12 years ago and returned a year later for the triumph that altered the course of his career. His victory in the Asia-Pacific Amateur on Kasumigaseki’s West Course earned him his first Masters invitation. Ten years later, he won the green jacket to become Japan’s first men’s major champion.
Ever since that victory in April, the focus has been on Matsuyama’s medal quest. But this competition is fraught with meaning for its 54-hole leader, as well.
A gold medal would end a victory drought that’s lasted for 2 ½ years, a frustrating duration for the fifth-ranked player in the world. Xander’s 13 top-three finishes are the second-most on TOUR in the last three seasons, just one fewer than Justin Thomas.
Xander may be a San Diego native but he has grandparents in Tokyo. And this week he is fulfilling his family’s Olympic dreams that started a generation earlier. Stefan Schauffele was struck by a drunk driver en route to a training camp for the German decathlon team. The crash left him unable to compete in the grueling, multi-disciplinary event and drove him instead to golf. Stefan has been his son’s only swing coach, and he was needed Saturday evening.
COVID restrictions have kept family from these Games, but coaches are able to attend in order to assist their athletes. Stefan’s familiar frame has stood out among the limited galleries this week. He walks well ahead of his son, but his eyes are trained on every swing.
“He may have seen some things,” Schauffele said in Saturday’s post-round press conference. “That's why he's out here, for these moments.”
Xander’s red, white and blue staff bag was waiting for him when he arrived on the range after his press conference. The name plate bearing the Schauffele name was already in place.
They set up shop on the left side of the range. Only a handful players were still practicing. Half were women getting ready for next week’s competition. The men were lightheartedly hitting shots, opting to spend the afternoon at the course instead of back in their hotel and under COVID restrictions. This week, the golf course is their sanctuary.
Chile’s Mito Pereira and Joaquin Niemann, friends since childhood, were engaged in a chipping contest. They were about to hit shots over the flags separating the driving range from the chipping green until a volunteer ran over, his arms crossed in front of him, to stop them.Xander Schauffele and Hideki Matsuyama at the practice range at Kasumigaseki Country Club. (Keyur Khamar/PGA TOUR)
The Schauffeles were engaged in serious business, however. Stefan rubbed his son’s shoulders briefly before Xander started hitting shots. Stefan leaned forward, his hands on his knees to get a closer look.
Simplicity is key to Xander’s success. It’s why – despite disagreements caused by their shared stubbornness – Stefan has remained Xander’s lone coach. Xander’s caddie for his entire TOUR career has been his former college roommate, Austin Kaiser. Despite being perplexed by Saturday’s ball-striking Saturday, Xander took solace in the fact that there were just four potential fixes.
“I can tell you it's probably one of four things,” Xander said. “Hopefully I don't have to hit too many balls to run through all four of those things.”
The basics are always a good place to start, so Xander hit balls with two alignment sticks perpendicular to each other. One aided his aim. The other let him check his ball position.
He repeatedly rehearsed his takeaway, at one point taking the club back a foot, then pausing before proceeding with his backswing. It looked a bit like Sungjae Im’s methodical backswing.
Xander’s address position was the next thing they analyzed. Stefan leaned over, putting all his weight on his right foot, to illustrate that Xander had too much weight on one side. Stefan looked like he was pantomiming “I’m a Little Teapot.”
Xander carefully placed his right hand on the club before several swings, replacing it on the grip when it didn’t feel comfortable. He hiked his pants a couple times to see where his feet were pointed. It’s hard to make a good swing when things are off-kilter from the start.
Kaiser filmed swings on a smartphone before leaving to get the Trackman after about 20 minutes. Eventually Matusyama arrived on the range, as well. There was plenty of room on the range – only two players remained – but he hit balls directly behind Xander.
Despite the perceived pressure of playing in his homeland, Matsuyama’s camp was light. He squirted water at one member and laughed at jokes even while standing over his ball. Japan’s 51-year-old captain, the effervescent Shigeki Maruyama, wore a flat-brim hat and a pair of miniature fans that looked like a pair of Bluetooth headphones.
“I'm going to focus on having fun and trying to play well,” Matsuyama said in his post-round press conference.
Matsuyama may be one stroke back but he has the upper hand on Xander this year. They were in the final group of another important competition, this year’s Masters. Matsuyama started the final round with a four-shot lead, but Xander birdied Nos. 12-15 to pull within two shots and make Matsuyama sweat.
Xander hit his tee shot into the water left of the 16th green, however, to hand Matsuyama the tournament. Xander was awkwardly asked about the Masters on Saturday while Matsuyama was waiting in the interview room.
“He obviously was firing on a lot of cylinders when he won the Masters,” Xander said. “I think he's maybe not as in his realm of perfection, maybe he's not hitting it as good as he would like to, but he's one back. … He didn't have his best stuff potentially, too, and he made some nice putts to stay in it.
“Unfortunately, we fed off each other in the wrong way.”
Matsuyama is making his first start since contracting COVID-19. He went four weeks without playing a competitive round, but he’s been surprised how well he’s held up under this week’s high heat.
“My endurance level is not up to 100%, but saying that would be an excuse,” Matsuyama said. He had enough energy for a post-round practice session Saturday. He had a launch monitor out but seemed unconcerned with its readings. He made a couple practice swings between shots but there didn’t seem to be any 11th-hour swing changes underway.
Xander emptied one bag of range balls and Kaiser twice went back to grab two more handfuls for his boss to hit. Stefan kneeled on the grass, then tipped over a water bucket and turned it into a seat before someone brought him a chair.
Finally, after a few more iron shots, the Schauffeles’ work was done. It was almost an hour after they’d set foot on the range, which was now bathed in shadows.
The sun was setting on Kasumigaseki Country Club. An Olympic medal awaited.