Tour Confidential: What Schauffele’s win means, Olympic format tweaks
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Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they break down the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com. This week, we discuss Xander Schauffele’s gold medal win, the Olympic format and more.
1. Xander Schauffele won gold in the Tokyo Olympics men’s golf event on Sunday, shooting a final-round 67 to edge a hard-charging Rory Sabbatini by a stroke. Schauffele, who has been competitive in many majors (nine top 10s) but struggled to close them out, called the title the biggest of his life. How does a gold medal change the narrative around Schauffele’s young career?
Josh Sens, senior writer (@joshsens): It definitely helps quiet some of the questions about his ability to close, which were starting to get louder with each close call, no matter how well Schauffele handled them. To many observers, though, nabbing an Olympic gold is nowhere near on par with winning a major, and we’ll no doubt hear from those voices until Schauffele gets his first. One very good thing about the ‘narrative’ about Schauffele is that Schauffele seems not to obsess about it. Smart young man, steering clear of social media.
James Colgan, assistant editor (@jamescolgan26): Sure, it changes the narrative around Schauffele being able to win “a big tournament.” Does it change the narrative about his struggles in winning one of the four big tournaments? No, not quite.
Dylan Dethier, senior writer (@dylan_dethier): It’s massive. We can be honest that the Olympics’ strength of field was lacking in depth while also appreciating that to Schauffele, this meant a ton. He put the pedal to the medal out of the gates on Sunday, lost his mojo for a bit on the back nine and then made impressive up-and-downs on 17 and 18 to bring home the gold. I shudder to think the takes that would inevitably be flying around this question had he missed that final four-footer, but the point is that he didn’t. He hit it dead-center. And four years from now, people will hardly remember that this Olympic field was missing some marquee names — but they’ll remember that Schauffele owns the gold.
Michael Bamberger, senior writer: The harsh view is that he beat 59 guys, some of whom could seldom beat him, on a soft course. A far better way to view it is he did what he needed to do to win an OLYMPIC GOLD MEDAL. Which, no matter how you parse it, is kind of a big deal.
2. Sabbatini posted a Sunday 61 to bring home silver for Slovakia. Rory McIlroy had a shot at bronze but came up short in a seven-player playoff won by C.T. Pan. Justin Thomas and late addition Patrick Reed failed to crack the top 20. Whose play in Tokyo most surprised — or inspired — you?
Sens: Sabbatini. He’s always been streaky, but to put up a performance like that in an event that clearly meant a ton to him, playing under an adoptive flag — that was cool. Having his wife on the bag, shouting in celebration when his birdies dropped, added a sweet dimension to it all — not exactly standard caddie comportment but welcome anyway.
Colgan: Neither Sungjae Im nor Si Woo Kim managing a top-20 finish after taking off the Open Championship to prepare was surprising to me. Particularly considering the enormous significance the event held to both of their careers.
Dethier: Pan’s charge to the bronze was incredible. After an opening 74, he was the best golfer in the field over the last 54 holes, shooting 66-66-63 and fending off a bunch of blue-chippers in that seven-golfer playoff.
Bamberger: Sabo, wearing the colors of Slovakia. Which are red, blue and white. As he would surely know.
3. More than a few observers have looked at Olympic golf with a skeptical eye, in part because some of the game’s biggest stars have been reluctant to participate. With two editions of an Olympic golf event behind us (in the modern era), what’s your assessment of golf as an Olympic sport?
Sens: It belongs but the format could use some tweaking. Our own Dylan Dethier had some of the sharper suggestions I’ve seen so far in his column earlier this week. Stroke-play is key to identifying the best player. But Olympic golf is begging for a team component.
Colgan: Throwing out the testing, restrictions, and general Covid weirdness of this year’s event (all of which were legitimate gripes), the Olympic tournament has more than proved its worth as one of the 10 biggest events in the men’s game. It might even be in the top 5. Now give us the damn team component so we can REALLY celebrate.
Dethier: I laid out the simplest possible solution I could think of: Have the men and women compete on the same days, team up for four-golfer teams (two men, two women) and take the three best scores out of four each day to make a team score and corresponding team medals. The individual competition would be unchanged. (In a perfect world, the top four teams would then play match play to determine medal order, but I’m not a greedy man and I’ll take any version of team format.
Bamberger: I don’t think you need an individual title at all. Just play two-person better-ball teams.
4. The Olympics has a deeply personal vibe: it can mean a lot to a golfer, not much or somewhere in between. When you consider the weight of what’s at stake paired with what is a relatively weak field compared to golf’s other big events, how do you rate the significance of a gold medal? Can/should it be mentioned in the same breath as a major title?
Sens: It can be mentioned in the same breath, but only if you acknowledge how different they are. Which is not a bad thing.
Colgan: It’s not quite a major, but it’s worth a little bit more than everything on the PGA Tour calendar. There’s a real, tangible significance to winning an Olympic medal in the greater sports consciousness that can’t be said for non-majors. Simple as that.
Dethier: I have a feeling Schauffele’s win will only grow in significance with time. There’s only one of these every four years, after all, and I have a feeling the fields will keep getting stronger. We don’t talk much about the strength of field for major championships in the 1980s; we count ‘em just the same as today’s. Also, it’s a hell of a cocktail party intro. Schauffele might not wow random sports fans with a PGA Championship title, but Olympic gold?That translates pretty well.
Bamberger: Let’s play rank-’em: British, U.S., Masters, Olympic gold, PGA.
5. The format of Olympic golf is one of its most debated elements, with some arguing that 72 holes of stroke play is the best way to identify champion and others suggesting that a team or even a mixed-gender format would be more compelling. What say you? Keep the format for Paris 2024, or alter it?
Sens: Change it. Stitch a team competition in with the individual, as is done already in a number of other Olympic sports. Mixed gender? Sure. Why not. Anything to help Olympic golf stand out from other tournaments, without making it gimmicky. A non-golf fan friend called me this morning to say he’d watched the event and wondered why they didn’t make it a skills challenge, with closest to the pin and long-drive competitions and such. I wouldn’t want to go there, but four rounds of stroke play is ripe for improvement.
Colgan: I would suggest the Olympic committee read Dylan’s brilliantly outlined solution to incorporating both stroke and team play. Then I would suggest they enact it as the new law of the land. The End.
Dethier: I’d have to agree with James, because he’s agreeing with me. Also, there are 37 swimming events; shouldn’t golf get more than two?
Bamberger: I’d ditch anything in golf related to individual play.
6. Many of today’s top players fancy themselves as proper athletes. If you had to send one golfer to an Olympic trial in another sport (with hopes of them earning a spot on Team USA), who are you assigning to which sport, and why?
Sens: Alex Noren in table tennis? Adam Scott in surfing? Shane Lowry in the high jump? Some would do better than others, but all would reinforce what we see when athletes from other sports try to compete with the best in golf. They can’t.
Colgan: I could see Tony Finau being pretty solid in 3×3 basketball. Maybe Bryson in the hammer throw. Definitely not Justin Thomas in weightlifting.
Dethier: Collin Morikawa seems like he’d be a hell of an archer. And a visored, mulleted Cameron Smith has the ideal assistant coach vibe for just about any team in any sport.
Bamberger: I don’t know but I once asked Earl Woods what Tiger would have pursued had he not been a golfer and he said he would have been a 400-meter high-hurdler.