KAWAGOE, Japan – Some might have seen the storm looming over Kasumigaseki Country Club for much of Friday as a fitting metaphor for Team USA.
When the weather-warning horn blew for the first time just past lunch, the Olympic fate of the U.S. side seemed almost staggering with the foursome of Americans all toiling outside the top 10 on an international leaderboard.
In the buildup to this week’s Olympic men's golf competition there were some extremist who flirted with the idea of an American sweep of the medal podium. But as the event inched toward the halfway house, a podium shutout was starting to feel just as likely.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The Americans began the week with every possible advantage. The U.S. is the only team to have more than two players in the field and holds down the four highest-ranked players. These things aren’t won on paper, but the Americans had come by their favorite status honestly.
That was until Patrick Reed started to show signs of jetlag following his whirlwind trip from Minnesota on Monday to Tokyo on Wednesday without so much as a practice round or proper night’s sleep. Reed, who stepped in to replace Bryson DeChambeau after DeChambeau's positive COVID-19 test, followed an opening 68 with an even-par effort and heads into the weekend at 3 under and five shots outside of a spot on the podium.
Collin Morikawa was only slightly better with a 1-under 70 Friday, and he was tied alongside Reed while Justin Thomas had faded into a tie for 39th when play was finally halted for the day by another storm just past dinner. (Play will resume at 7:45 a.m. local time Saturday, 6:45 p.m. ET Friday, with 16 players still yet to complete 36 holes; the third round will be played in threesomes and off split tees, from 9:30 a.m. to 11:18 a.m. local.)
That left Schauffele to fly the American flag and produce an inspired finish that swung momentum in Team USA’s favor. The 27-year-old launched a perfect 3-wood at the flag on the par-5 14th hole and charged in a 43-footer for eagle. He followed that with birdies at Nos. 16, 17 and 18 to put the finishing touches on an 8-under 63 and a one-stroke lead over Mexico’s Carlos Ortiz.
In less than an hour Schauffele swung the American fortunes and, at least temporarily, stopped the predictable handwringing – Where is Team USA? Where were the undisputed favorites?
“If you just go by ranking, but that's not always the case, is it?” Schauffele said when asked if he considered the American side the team to beat. “This is different, this is a different sort of style of golf. If you're kind of from Asia you're kind of more used to this grass in the fairway and the kind of conditions and the heat. I'm not really sure who would have the edge coming in.”
In fairness, unlike most other Olympic sports, golf stretches the boundaries of the team concept. Players may be wearing the same gear, but it’s still 72 holes of individual stroke play. They’ve practiced together, they’ve dined together and they’ve savored the experience together, but ultimately they all stand alone.
This isn’t meant to question the American side’s attitude or effort. The foursome that made the trip to Japan did so for all the right reasons, but a Sunday celebration without an American flag being raised would be noticed.
“It's tough because it is a team sport, but we are here playing as individuals, there's no team,” Morikawa said. “This is golf. I think we have only seen it certain times throughout everyone's career where guys are going to finish top 3 every single tournament and that's the toughest thing is that how do you find a format to where other sports are going to show their best player. But that's what makes golf great is that anyone can play great at any given time, right?”
There’s a randomness to golf that doesn’t exist in most other Olympic sports, and the Americans could take some solace in the last Summer Games in Rio. There were no Americans inside the top 10 through two rounds in 2016 before Matt Kuchar’s closing 63 kept the U.S. from being shut out on the podium.
Schauffele matched Kuchar's score with his own 63 on Friday and in the process changed a narrative that was becoming uncomfortable for Team USA.