Monday Scramble: Olympics changes some minds; should the format change, too?

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Xander Schauffele takes gold (alongside the other, more surprising medalists), Rory McIlroy becomes a believer, the Olympics format debate rages on and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

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Of the dream storylines heading into the 2020 Olympics, Xander Schauffele vaulting to the top of the podium at least cracked the top 3.

No, it wouldn't be quite as monumental as Hideki Matsuyama winning gold at home. And it wouldn't be as life-changing as South Koreans Sungjae Im or Si Woo Kim earning a medal to avoid mandatory military service. But the Olympics often shine a light on an athlete's personal backstory, about the dedication and sacrifice required to reach the pinnacle, and Schauffele's tale was no different.

His mother grew up in Tokyo; his grandparents still live there.

His father was an Olympic hopeful in the decathlon before he was struck by a drunk driver on his way to German national team training and suffered a multitude of injuries that curtailed his dream. Now smitten with golf, Stefan has been Xander's only swing coach.

And Xander himself has weathered a frustrating few years on the course, defined by plenty of fine play but never a trophy. He hadn’t won in 2 1/2 years despite owning a lofty ranking that now has him as the fifth-ranked player in the world.

All of those motivational factors coalesced in a memorable way at Kasumigaseki Country Club, where Schauffele’s scrambling par on the 72nd hole was enough to secure the gold medal.

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The one-stroke victory didn’t come with a massive paycheck, or a boatload of Ryder Cup or FedExCup points. But it was significant for several reasons, both personally and professionally. For his family, of course, especially his dad. But also for his career: It was his first win from the front-running position; all four of his PGA Tour titles have come from behind.

“This was a really big point for me in my career, to have a lead and be able to cap it off,” he said.

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For more on Schauffele’s victory, check out colleague Rex Hoggard’s on-the-ground reporting. But let’s leave you with this quote from Schauffele, on why this was such a dream storyline eventually realized:

“I maybe put more pressure on myself to want to go win this more than anything else for quite some time,” he said. “It was more than just golf for me, and I’m just really, really happy and fortunate to be sitting here.”

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In his first Olympic appearance, Rory delivered a silver-medal performance – just not the Rory you were expecting.

Yes, Rory Sabbatini turned in the best round in the tournament’s short history, firing a scorching, 10-under 61 on Sunday to fly past the contenders and steal second place in Tokyo.

Not feeling all warm and fuzzy? You’re probably not alone.

After getting married in 2014, Sabbatini was introduced to his new wife’s cousin, Rastislav Antala, who happens to now be the president of the Slovak Golf Association. Antala pitched the idea of Sabbatini putting the European country on the map by securing dual citizenship and flying the Slovakian flag in international competitions like the Olympics.

It might not have been Sabbatini’s initial idea, but the 45-year-old was a willing participant. His career prospects fading, he had virtually no chance of qualifying for his native South Africa. But for Slovakia, which boasts only about 30 courses in the country and no professional player inside the top 800 in the world? He was a shoe-in to play. So here we were.

Sabbatini’s inclusion might have been a bit dubious – what better role model for Slovakian up-and-comers than a native South African who now resides in South Florida? – but give credit where it’s due here. Sabbatini’s final-round score was his best round of the year by three, and the solo-second finish was his best in nine years.

Once he wiggled his way into the field, yeah, for sure, he earned that silver.

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The recipient of the bronze medal may have been just as unlikely.

C.T. Pan seemed to have blown himself out of contention on Day 1 with an opening 74, but he rallied with rounds of 66-66-63 to put himself in a seven-way tie for third with a bunch of compelling names.

Names like Matsuyama, Japan’s native son, trying to pair a medal with a green jacket.

And Rory McIlroy, Olympic skeptic turned supporter.

And Mito Pereira, Korn Ferry Tour player just a few months ago.

And Collin Morikawa, wunderkind who is winning, like, everything.

But Matsuyama bowed out first, which must have been particularly painful for all those watching at home:

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McIlroy couldn’t keep pace, either, after hitting the edge on a short birdie putt on the second playoff hole. Pereira’s birdie bid horseshoed out, too.

And so in the end, it was Pan, the one-time PGA Tour winner, who prevailed on the fourth extra hole after Morikawa uncharacteristically misfired on an approach shot and drew a buried lie in the greenside bunker that left him little chance for par.

"Very satisfying," Pan said after earning a rare medal for Chinese Taipei. "It came as a surprise to me, too."

And how about this: Two of the three medalists had their wives on the bag. Solid team efforts.

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Over the past few years, it always felt unfair when players were asked to explain what it would mean to them to earn an Olympic medal.

How would they possibly know?

Golf returned to the Olympics in 2016 for the first time in more than a century. These global stars dreamed of slipping into a green jacket or hoisting the U.S. Open trophy, but never of posing with a medal draped around their neck. The only way for them to know for sure was to experience it for themselves.

That’s why a personal narrative like Rory McIlroy’s can be so important moving forward.

No doubt, McIlroy had valid reasons for approaching these Games disinterestedly. His Northern Irish roots pitted him in an uncomfortable position, forced to choose between Ireland and Great Britain. (He chose the former.) He was on record as saying that golf had little place in the Games, that it wasn’t a sport that “mattered,” like track and field or swimming. And he had made it clear that he was flying to Tokyo purely as an ambassador for the sport, believing that if he wanted to see the game thrive, then he had a responsibility to be there, vying for a medal.

Rory McIlroy: 'I never tried so hard in my life to finish third'

Even with those noble intentions he seemed to be taking the easy way out: He didn't arrive until Tuesday, turned in only one practice round and didn’t even speak to the assembled press, opting instead to answer a few cupcake questions from a media official in which McIlroy had the same let's-get-this-over-with attitude.

Then the tournament unfolded ... and McIlroy started to see the light. Even in what was a “watered-down” experience for the athletes in these COVID times.

He said: “Being a part of something that’s completely different and bigger than me, that’s a pretty cool thing. I didn’t know if this was going to be my only Olympics that I play, and I’m already looking forward to Paris.”

And: “I think I need to do a better job of just giving things a chance, experiencing things, not writing them off at first glance. That’s sort of a trait of mine, but I’m happy to be proven wrong.”

And finally: “I made some comments before that were probably uneducated and impulsive, but coming here experiencing it, seeing it, feeling everything that goes on, that sort of Olympic spirit has definitely bitten me, and I’m excited how this week has turned out and excited for the future.”

Yep, it’s official: Rory McIlroy is an Olympics convert.

This week in Memphis, and in the weeks and months and years ahead, it’s easy to envision McIlroy being one of the Games' most outspoken advocates. He has the cachet to ensure that, come summer 2024, golf has nearly full participation from the big names. Barring another epidemic, there'll be no excuses then.

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Golf in the Olympics looks and feels like any other tournament of import, which has led to the usual chorus of critics that the unimaginative format needs to be changed.

Why?

A 72-hole stroke-play tournament is the currency of the sport, and over time medal play identifies those who perform the best.

Would a match-play element make the action more exciting? Probably, in the early stages. But 18-hole match play is also ripe for fluky winners and often produces sleepy championship and consolation matches. The event is already struggling to attract the best players who can't be bothered to turn up without a massive purse attached; now throw in the possibility of getting sent home early because they ran into some random buzzsaw who dropped nine birdies on 'em? No way.

A mixed team event has also been floated. Well-intentioned, but likely a non-starter. There’s clearly a reason why the PGA Tour hasn’t yet brought back a mixed team competition, despite the consistent howling from fans and media – because there must not be an appetite among the membership for it. It seems highly unlikely that a player will want to pin his medal hopes on a teammate whom he likely has never met or seen play.

That said ...

There is a quick and easy addition to the format that requires nothing more than a little math. The solution: Add a team component, like we see all year in college golf.

During the NCAA season, teams compete in a play-five, count-four format, meaning they drop the high score each round. They add up those four counting scores over the course of 54 or 72 holes, while also tallying all of the individual scores.

It’d work similarly in the Olympics, with the team’s two scores being counted toward the overall total. (If a team has four players, like the Americans, then the best two scores each day would count toward the overall team total, while all of the individuals continue to vie for the individual medal.) At the end of the week, there’d be both an individual winner and an overall team champion. Easy!

So here’s how the top of the team standings would look based on the men’s results:

GOLD: U.S.: 36 under par

SILVER: Chile: 29 under

BRONZE: Great Britain: 26 under

Among those missing the podium:

  • Ireland: 25 under

  • Austria: 23 under

  • Belgium: 21 under

  • Japan: 21 under

  • South Korea: 18 under

  • Mexico: 17 under

This accomplishes a few things: 1.) It adds an extra dose of national pride, since they’re competing not just individually but also as a “team”; 2.) keeps players invested throughout the entire event, instead of having their interest wane as soon as a top-3 finish becomes unrealistic; and 3.) makes the final round even more compelling, since there would be a total of six medals up for grabs. As the NCAA Championship annually proves, the final day of stroke play – in which not just the top teams are established but an individual champion is crowned – is one of the most exciting of the entire year, even if it’s a headache for TV producers to keep track of all the different angles.

That’s a simple tweak to what is already a stellar product.

THIS WEEK'S AWARD (MEDAL?) WINNERS ...

Park going for second gold medal at Tokyo Olympics
Park going for second gold medal at Tokyo Olympics

Who Got Next: Olympic women’s event. Stepping right up is the best from the women’s game, with nearly all of the top qualifiers making the trek to Tokyo for the Games. Nelly Korda offers America’s best hope while Inbee Park, part of a loaded South Korean squad (with four of the top six players), is looking to earn back-to-back gold medals. The 72-hole event has the same broadcast schedule, only a day earlier: The competition begins Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. ET on Golf Channel.

The Weight of Expectation: Hideki Matsuyama. Arguably no player faced more external pressure at the Games than Matsuyama, the reigning Masters champion who was shooting for gold at home. If you thought a major title might have freed him up, his play suggested otherwise: With a shot at the top spot, he instead missed short putts on 16 (for par) and 17 (for birdie) to drop into the logjam at 15 under. Then he was bounced with bogey on the first extra hole. Oy.

What Happened?: Carlos Ortiz. The third member of Sunday’s final group was dropped from coverage midway through the final round, with the Mexican firing a closing 78 to plummet all the way from third to T-42. Already out of it, his last four holes (double-bogey-bogey-double) were a tough way to end what had otherwise been a sensational week.

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Standing Ovation: Patrick Reed. Say what you want about the controversial American, but it’s hard to imagine anyone else answering the call like Reed did. A late addition to the Olympic field after Bryson DeChambeau tested positive for COVID-19, Reed accepted an invitation that had previously been declined by Patrick Cantlay and Brooks Koepka. He arrived in Japan on Wednesday afternoon, only saw the course from the seat of a golf cart and never complained despite battling some serious jetlag. He tied for 22nd but, for his dedication to the cause, should receive some brownie points from the U.S. Ryder Cup leadership.

Gotta Feel For ...: Paul Casey. In what was almost certainly his one and only chance to medal at age 44, the Englishman finished a shot off the podium as he looked for a sweet capper to what has been a very good career. Few players seemed to have more fun last week than Casey, who soaked up the experience by staying in the Olympic Village. Speaking of which ...

They Just Can’t Make It Easy On ’Em, Huh?: 2024 Games. One of the missing aspects of these Tokyo Games was the intermingling between golfers and other athletes. COVID-19 restrictions kept them from seeing other competitions live, and the course’s far-flung proximity to the Olympic Village (at least an hour, depending on traffic) led many to eschew the fraternity vibe for more convenient accommodations. Well, it doesn’t sound like it’ll get any better for the 2024 Games in Paris; McIlroy said the course in Versailles is two-hour trip from the Village. Here’s hoping those who tee it up there do the sensible thing: Arrive early, stay in the Village for a few nights before the tournament, and then secure other housing near the course for the competition days. That way they can have the full Olympic experience – but not sabotage their medal hopes.

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The Clock Is Still Ticking: South Koreans. Neither Sungjae Im (T-22) nor Si Woo Kim (T-32) seriously contended in the Games, which should have come as no surprise considering their recent form. Still, it was an unfortunate outcome for the accomplished duo: Barring an eligibility extension, this was the 27-year-old Kim’s final shot to earn a medal and avoid mandatory military service (which has proven recently to be a career-wrecker), while Im could get another chance in 2024, if he qualifies. Fingers crossed.

Annika Sorenstam
Annika Sorenstam

Like She Never Left: Annika Sorenstam. After retiring from the game in 2008 to start a family and grow her other businesses, the 72-time LPGA winner began to get the itch this year, signing up for a couple events in order to be competitively sharp for yet another USGA championship. All she did in her first appearance at the U.S. Senior Women’s Open was go wire to wire, blowing out the field by EIGHT shots. Sorenstam won at 12-under 276 as only four other players broke par at Brooklawn. Welcome back.

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Oldie But Goodie: Joanne Carner. One of the game’s most colorful characters, the 82-year-old became the oldest player to tee it up in a USGA championship – and then shot her age, twice, including a second-round 79. Big Mama is such a legend.

Generation Next: Michael Thorbjornsen. A highly sought-after junior, the rising Stanford sophomore justified all of the hype by capturing the Western Amateur, one of the most difficult tournaments to win with a stacked field and the stroke/match play hybrid format. He’ll be one of the favorites, if not THE favorite, at the upcoming U.S. Amateur.

Weary Travelers: WGC field. Though there was some concern there'd be a couple of big-name defections, only world No. 1 Jon Rahm is missing from this week's WGC. That Monday-morning charter from Tokyo to Memphis (and, of course, a no-cut, big-money, limited-field event on the back-end) made all the difference.

Quote of the Week (And the Final Word): Justin Thomas. He tied for 22nd but that seemed to matter little in the end. Here is JT, on his first Olympic experience: “It’s just so different. It was cooler than I thought it was. I’m more proud of being here than I thought I would be. The first day or two, I immediately found that this is the coolest thing I’ve ever been a part of. I think when you don’t have the ability to dream something, when you get here, it can sometimes just take you by surprise, and this definitely exceeded that.”

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