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Xander Schauffele leaves Olympics with gold medal, but he almost never arrived in Japan

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KAWAGOE, Japan – Xander Schauffele was born for this.

His grandfather, Richard, was the 1935 German track and field champion before being sidelined by a shoulder injury two weeks before the ’36 Olympics. His father, Stefan, was poised to qualify for the Olympics as a decathlete when he lost sight in his left eye after being struck by a drunk driver in 1986.

All of the work and the training and the effort that Xander Schauffele put into his craft was for this moment and yet he almost didn’t make the trip to Japan.

Like many players, Schauffele was reluctant to commit to playing the Olympic golf competition for a variety of reasons, including intense COVID-19 restrictions and awkward scheduling during a crucial point in the PGA Tour season. There were also logistics issues.

Full-field scores from the Olympic Men’s Competition

“I had to fight hard to get our hotel near here,” Stefan Schauffele said. “Honestly, if he had to stay in the village we were seriously contemplating not coming. They changed the alert level because of COVID-19 and the streets are empty, but if that wouldn’t have occurred you’d be sitting 2 ½ hours in a car one way and that’s just not how you can compete.”

There were also travel concerns for returning to the United States in a timely enough fashion to play next week’s WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational, but when the PGA Tour arranged for a charter flight from Japan to Memphis, it all made sense.

“Louis [Oosthuizen] talked to me at the U.S. Open and asked me about Japan and I told him I was trying to get a closer hotel and we’re trying to get a flight back and he just said, ‘I’m giving up.' He withdrew,” Stefan Schauffele said. “I saw him in England at The Open and he said, ‘If I would have known there was a charter, I would have played.’”

Schauffele wins gold for country and family

Gold medal winner Xander Schauffele talks about representing his country and family in these Olympic Games.

Xander Schauffele’s decision to play, and all that effort, paid off with a gold medal-winning performance on Sunday at Kasumigaseki Country Club. After starting the day with a one-stroke lead, Schauffele extended his advantage to two shots with birdies at Nos. 1 and 2 and added another at No. 5 for a three-stroke advantage, before things intensified on the closing nine.

With Rory Sabbatini closing the gap with a tournament-record 61, Schauffele stumbled with a sloppy bogey at the par-5 14th after driving into the trees and taking a penalty drop to fall into a tie at 17 under.

He pulled ahead with a birdie at the penultimate hole, but was forced to lay up after a poor drive at the last that required some last-minute magic.

“I was trying so hard to just stay calm. Hit a terrible drive on 18, had to make a sort of sloppy par and fortunately hit it close enough to sort of have a high percentage putt at roughly 4, 5 feet. But, man, it was stressful,” he said. “I made that putt and it was just a huge weight lifted off my shoulders.”

Watch: Xander sticks wedge, saves par for gold

Xander Schauffele hit one of the best wedge shots of his life to clinch Olympic gold on Sunday in Tokyo.

It was a storybook ending for Schauffele, who had spent a lifetime hearing his father talk about the Olympics. Earlier in the week, he said he didn’t know how he would react coming down the stretch because Olympic golf is all so new. But following his closing 67 for a one-stroke victory, he acknowledged it was much better than he expected.

“It's special. That's a word that's thrown around a lot, especially for us golfers,” Schauffele said. “I mean it's so different for us, we're used to playing for money and we play a normal schedule and this is every four years and it's just kind of a different feel to it.

“You're wearing your country's colors and everyone's just trying to represent to the best of their ability. It does have that sort of special and different feel.”

It was equally special for Stefan Schauffele, who said he’d remained largely indifferent to the outcome for most of the week but was bracing for an emotional podium ceremony and the national anthem.

“Nobody is going to play the anthem for you when you win the Masters; that level of pride just doesn’t exist in a major and lots of thoughts come back,” Stefan Schauffele said. “I’m choking up now just thinking about it. It’s just about honor.”

And it almost didn’t happen.