HARTFORD, Conn. – Thoroughly enjoyed watching two classy individuals win major championships and gold medals with major family ties on Sunday.
In the early morning, Xander Schauffele made a clutch saving par on the final hole after driving into the trees to shoot a closing 5-under-par 67 and win the gold medal in the Olympic Games men’s individual stroke play at the Kasumiegasek Country Club in suburban Tokyo, Japan.
Then as dinner time approached on the East Coast, Annika Sorenstam again proved why she’s a legend in the women’s game as she shot a final-round, 4-under 68 for an eight-stroke victory over fellow Swede Liselotte Neumann in the third U.S. Senior Women’s Open at Brooklawn Country Club in Fairfield. Sorenstam tied the tournament-record, 12-under 276 total carded by Laura Davies in the inaugural event in 2018 when she won by a record 10 strokes and then finished third on Sunday.
Schauffele’s first win in 21/2 years after a handful of near-misses was far more tense than for Sorenstam, as his 18-under total of 266 was only one better than Slovakia’s Rory Sabbatini, who had an eagle and 10 birdies in an Olympic record 61. A bogey at the par-5 14th hole dropped Schauffele into a tie with Sabbatini, but he regained the lead with a 4-foot birdie putt at the 17th hole and then saved par at No. 18 with a pitchout from the trees, a terrific wedge from 98 yards to 4 feet and one putt to become the first individual American men’s golfer to win gold since Charles Sand at the Olympic Games Paris 1900.
It was especially satisfying title for Schauffele because his mother was born in Chinese Taipei before being raised in Japan, where his grandparents still live. Ping Yi and French-German Stefan Schauffele met at San Diego’s International University and married three months after they met. Stefan moved to the United States after his dreams of being an Olympic decathlete ended with an eye injury sustained in a car accident in 1986. He has been Xander’s only swing coach and was understandably moved to tears when his son clinched the gold.
Schauffele certainly wanted to win a gold medal for himself, but this one was more to make a dream come true for Stefan.
“It’s special,” said Schauffele, who has four PGA Tour victories. “That’s a word that’s thrown around a lot, especially for us golfers. I mean it’s so different for us, we’re used to playing for money and we play a normal schedule, and this is every four years and it’s just kind of a different feel to it. And you’re wearing your country’s colors and everyone’s just trying to represent to the best of their ability. So it does have that sort of special and different feel.
“To have my dad here as well is really special. I gave him a hug off the back of the green there. I know this means a lot to him, so I’m just happy to sort of deliver this. Man, it feels good. It really is a special deal, standing on the podium with these two boys (Sabbatini and bronze medalist C.T. Pan Chinese Taipei), with our flags being raised, the ceremony, 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. So I think we’re all very happy to be here right now.”
Stefan couldn’t hide his feelings.
“I felt like I was out there playing,” Stefan Schauffele told Golf Digest, holding back tears. “No, I’m not that good. You’re very proud. I think the real moment where the emotions come to the surface will be on the podium, when the anthem plays. Talking about this previously, I got choked up. I know that’s going to be a big moment. Very proud.”
Rory Sabbatini took the silver medal with a 17-under 267, while C.T. Pan won the bronze medal after a four-hole playoff to break a seven-way tie for third at 15-under par. Team USA’s Collin Morikawa was second to Pan in the playoff after a final-round 63. Local hero and Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama, Rory McIlroy and Paul Casey, a frequent challenger in the Travelers Championship still looking for a major championship, were also in the playoff.
“Yeah, you (have) to earn it,” Morikawa said. “It was a long four holes, and I thought my shot was going to be all right and just mishit it and C.T. played great and we had to shoot 8-under for both of us to get in this playoff for bronze. So it sucks, but hopefully it’s not a last and hopefully we’ll be back in four years.”
The two other members of Team USA, Justin Thomas and Patrick Reed, each shot 65 to tie for 22nd at 274.
Sorenstam continued to put on a clinic Sunday in her U.S. Senior Women’s Open debut, only her second start since retiring from the LPGA 13 years ago with 72 victories, including 10 majors and third behind fellow Hall of Famers Kathy Whitworth (88) and Mickey Wright (82). Still, there was pressure on the personable and brilliant Swede, who was a prohibitive favorite despite such limited competitive play for more than a decade thanks to emphasis on the ANNIKA Foundation and other business ventures, many involved with junior players.
Sorenstam began the day with a two-stroke lead over Neumann, whose victory in the 1988 U.S. Women’s Open is credited by Annika with giving her the confidence to succeed as a professional. Neumann made eagle 3 on the first hole to temporarily tie for the top, but Sorenstam birdied the hole, the first of three in the opening eight holes, and cruised to another memorable victory after Neumann made three bogeys in the same span.
Making it extra special was her caddie was husband Mike McGee, the son of 1979 Sammy Davis Jr.-Greater Hartford Open champion Jerry McGee, who died in March at 77. And the couple were followed by daughter Ava and son Will, an avid golfer and inspiration for mom to come out of retirement in May to play in the Gainbridge LPGA at the family’s home course, Lake Nona Country Club in Orlando, Fla.
Fittingly, the Sorenstam clan walked up part of the 18th fairway together with other spectators, who were allowed to join the players by the U.S. Golf Association. And Annika and Mike shared a brief kiss and the kids celebrated with friends as the crowd surrounding the 18th green gave her a rousing ovation.
Sorenstam narrowly missed a 10-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole to break Davis’ tournament record, and after Neumann made a 4-foot par putt to take sole second, the Swedes embraced before Sorenstam was showered with confetti, hugged by her family and friends and then waved to the responsive spectators as she walked to sign her card.
Turns out at least some of the victory originated after a third-round 72 on Saturday, when Sorenstam missed six fairways, an uncharacteristic ball-striking effort, and then returned to the practice tee with her family.
“After the round, we took a little break and then we went out and I got a little support,” Sorenstam said of Mike, Ava, 11, and Will, 10. “Ava kept telling me, ‘When you hit a shot tomorrow, mommy, don’t have anything in your mind.’ And then Will told me to believe that I can do it, and Mike said, ‘Just go out there and enjoy.’ I got a lot of good pointers. Sometimes you don’t know if kids listen to what you say, but a lot of these words I feel like they’ve come out of my mouth to them and now I’m getting it back. I’ve got to live my own lessons.”
Failing to break Davies’ tournament records hardly mattered considering what had happened around Sorenstam for four more glorious days on the golf course thanks to usually strong support from her family.
“It’s really cool to come back to the USGA because it has such a special spot in my heart,” Sorenstam said. “I wanted to play because I wanted to support women’s golf and it was a family affair. Golf is not my priority any more, so it’s nice to be able to relax and feel no pressure. I want it to show kids that if they work hard and follow their dreams that anything is possible.”
Sorenstam then capped her latest success with a “family portrait” photo on the 18th green with her trophy, gold medal, Mike, Ava and Will.
Xander Schauffele and Annika Sorenstam certainly demonstrated life truly can’t get much better.