KAWAGOE, Japan — No previous major victory experience was necessary to win a gold medal at the Olympics. American Xander Schauffele proved it all weekend.
Schauffele, 27, has finished in the top 10 at all four majors in his young career (with top three finishes in every event but the PGA Championship). Now he's the second men's golfer alive with a gold medal, five years after Justin Rose of Great Britain won it in 2016 at the Rio Games, where the sport returned to the Olympic program for the first time in more than a century.
The sport's inclusion was predicated on the fact the best players in the world would participate. While the 60-man field for these Tokyo Olympics became diluted due to positive COVID-19 tests from top-10 players Bryson DeChambeau (United States) and Jon Rahm (Spain), several notable names vied for a medal.
And Schauffele stood on top at the end with a 4-under 67 in Sunday's final round to finish 18-under-par for the tournament.
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Disaster nearly struck on hole 14 for Schauffele when his drive, so consistent all weekend, flew way right into shrubbery. Given a club-length of relief, he tangled with a skinny branch on his swing yet struck the ball well enough to eventually create a bogey opportunity, which he converted.
Three holes later, Schauffele found himself in more trouble, this time when his drive landed in a sand trap. But a cheeky approach set up a six-foot birdie putt and he sunk it to give himself the lead. A par save on 18, after yet another drive that missed the fairway, sealed the deal and the one-stroke victory over Slovakia's Rory Sabbatini.
Sabbatini, born in South Africa, obtained Slovakian citizenship two years ago. The 45-year-old fired a tournament-low (and Olympic record) 61 on Sunday to win silver at 17-under.
A seven-way tie for third place resulted in a playoff for the bronze.
Schauffele stormed to the lead Friday afternoon with a furious finish to sit 8-under after Round 2. And he never looked back.
He was the most consistent golfer for four days, entering Sunday with a 68, 63 and 68 on his scorecard.
Three birdies in the first five holes — two straight to start his final round — paved the way for him to play mostly par golf throughout the afternoon.
Crows cawed and cicadas sizzled all day as the sun scorched Kasumigaseki Country Club, about 75 minutes northwest of Tokyo. A large contingent of volunteers, media and officials trailed the final group, as Japan native Hideki Matsuyama played alongside Schauffele and Paul Casey (Great Britain) to provide the feel of a true final.
Even with the support, Matsuyama could not sink multiple birdie chances that would have put him in gold or silver contention three-plus months after winning the Masters. Matsuyama, Casey, C.T. Pan (Chinese Taipei), Mito Pereira (Chile), Rory McIlroy (Ireland), Sebastian Muñoz (Colombia) and Collin Morikawa (USA) were the playoff participants.
Seven-player playoff for bronze medal
After the first hole of the bronze-medal playoff, Paul Casey and Hideki Matsuyama – second and third, respectively, entering Sunday’s final round – are out after making bogey on 18. The playoff will now move to the par-3 10. Pan, Pereira, Munoz, McIlroy and Morikawa are still alive.
All five remaining players made par on 10 and moved to 11.
Pereira had a fine look at birdie that did a 270-degree spin around the cup. Then McIlroy just missed his manageable birdie attempt that also lipped out.
Morikawa’s approach shot reached within a foot of the pin and he tapped his birdie in, as did Pan, who also had an attempt within three feet.
Munoz bogeyed to join the elimination party, as Morikawa and Pan headed back to 18 for the fourth playoff hole.
Check back later for more updates on the bronze medal.
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Xander Schauffele wins gold medal for men's golf at Tokyo Olympics