‘Man, it was stressful’: What the intense pressure of a 4-footer for Olympic gold feels like
This is just a 4-footer.
All you have to do is make it
No big deal.
These were the thoughts racing through Xander Schauffele’s mind as he crouched behind his ball on the 18th green at Kasumigaseki Country Club on Sunday afternoon, a mere 48 inches or so between him and Olympic gold. Schauffele was looking not at his line but at the ground, a short respite to collect himself before hitting the most consequential putt of his life.
Much more than just Olympic glory was on the line. Schauffele, 27, is an exquisite talent, a four-time PGA Tour winner, the fifth-ranked player in the world. He has finished in the top-10 in half of his 18 career major starts. But still, there were question marks. (There always are in golf.) No major titles, despite being so close on so many occasions. No wins, period, in the last two-and-a-half-plus years. These are the dark thoughts that creep into a player’s head in the climactic moments of a tournament. Having the weight of your country on your shoulders doesn’t help matters.
With a near-gimme remaining was Schauffele thinking about the fruits of winning? Hell, yes. Tour pros are human, too, even if they rarely like to admit it.
“I think it’s okay for your thoughts to sort of venture into the future, that’s sort of what our brain does, unfortunately,” Schauffele said later. “I can’t get my heart to stop beating even if I tried my best … So I was just thinking about what if I make this putt and all these things. I tip my head down, I closed my eyes and I just tried to really become more present and just focus on the 4-footer.”
You know by now what happened next: draino. It wasn’t surprising. It was a tap-in, or damn close to one. Schauffele has made 97.69% of his putts from within 5 feet this season. His candor afterward, though, was surprising, or at least refreshing.
“I haven’t won anything in quite some time, that bothered me and my team, they know more than anyone else I’ve been knocking on the door a lot,” Schauffele said. “You kind of get that taste of winning and then it kind of gets swiped from you and you’re a little bit sour, even if you’re playing really good golf. So for me it was this was a really big point for me in my career I guess to sort of have a lead and be able to sort of cap it off. I haven’t done that before.”
It wasn’t always clear late on Sunday that Schauffele would get it done, largely because he hasn’t gotten in done in moments like this one — and he knew it. “I felt like for the most part of the day I stayed very calm. I usually look very calm but there’s something terrible happening inside at time,” he said. “So I was able to learn on those moments where I’ve lost coming down the stretch, where I hit a bad shot or a bad wedge or a bad putt and sort of lose my cool.”
On 18, it looked like that might happen again. With a one-shot lead, Schauffele airmailed his tee shot right of the right fairway bunker, plunking a volunteer in the back. “Terrible drive,” Schauffele said later. But he gathered himself, played a smart recovery followed by a beautiful wedge that left him with the four-footer. “Man, it was stressful,” he said of the shortie. When the putt went in, Schauffele said, it felt like “a huge weight lifted off my shoulders.”
The biggest moment of his career?
“I would like to think so,” he said.
If that assessment wasn’t clear to Schaufelle when the putt dropped, surely it hit him when his nation’s anthem played. To Schaufelle’s left on the podium was the silver medal winner, Rory Sabbatini of Slovakia. To his right, the bronze medal winner, C.T. Pan of Taiwan.
“It really is a special deal, standing on the podium with these two boys, with our flags being raised,” Schaufelle said. “I think people talk about why the Olympics are such a special thing to them and we’re fortunate enough to be a part of a ceremony, and I think we can all see why people say that. I think we’re all very happy to be here right now.”