Xander Schauffele and Collin Morikawa said they are both excited and thankful to be competing ahead of their debut at the Olympics Games.
The golf tournament at this year’s Games gets under way on Thursday, and the American stars are relishing their first chance at Olympic glory as two of four Team USA members in the field at Kasumigaseki Country Club in Japan.
Both men, along with a number of the game’s best players, are part of just the fourth field in Olympic history following the sport’s return during Justin Rose’s victory for Great Britain in Rio in 2016. The two previous editions were held in 1900 and 1904.
The connotations of golf’s relatively new re-addition to the Games means the relationship still feels very new to many, and still hasn't yet reached the same level of aspiration for everyone as the four Major championships already established as the pinnacle of the game.
But while that is true for some, for others like Schauffele and Morikawa, the chance to compete for a gold medal is something they feel very strongly about.
“Winning a gold medal and representing our country is a big deal, or else we wouldn’t be sitting here,” said Schauffele, whose other teammates include Justin Thomas and Patrick Reed, who was a late replacement for Bryson DeChambeau.
“Olympic golf hasn’t been around for a long time. It’s kind of in and out. Growing up the things that I dreamt of were Tiger Woods wearing red on a Sunday, they were watching Jack Nicklaus in yellow at Augusta. Those were the sorts of things that I grew up, golf-wise.
“If you look at other sports, track or swimming, judo, any other extreme athlete, this is the pinnacle, this is the most honourable thing and the biggest thing you can do for your country. For golf it’s so fresh and so new.
“Fortunately Collin and I are young, so when we talk to you it is exciting, it is very cool, it is something we want to do. Winning a gold medal and representing the USA correctly, we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t feel that way and feel strongly about it.”
The format of the event is four rounds of stroke-play with no cut, and a substantially smaller than the average field for a regular Tour event. And while Schauffele explains that the no-cut format gives a slightly more relaxed feel, he also concedes that it doesn’t make the task at hand any easier.
On differentiating between the Olympic Games and other golf tournaments, he said: “In comparison, I guess, you just kind of break it down. You have to imagine that you have a better chance of beating 59 people, compared to, Collin just won the Open, than to beat 200 people.
“Of course the best of each country’s showing up to play so that makes it a little bit harder. There’s a lot to play for here but there being no cut it does bring a very prestigious yet relaxed sort of feel.”
One thing that will be considerably different however, will be a lack of spectators – something which professional golf has reintroduced in various forms on both European and PGA Tours. For Schauffele, whose mother was born in Taiwan but brought up in Japan and whose grandparents still live, it’s the one thing missing from his experience this year.
“It sucks, there’s no nice way of putting it. Anyone that’s not aware, golf in Japan is a really massive sport, it’s really, really a big deal.
“People in Japan love golf, and I know if spectators were allowed there’d be a massive show-out of people, and a lot of support from everyone.
"It would have been a massive show of people this week and selfishly, of course, I really want to see my grandparents. They're getting a little bit older in age and it would be really nice to see them."
Practice round with Colin Morikawa and @justinthomas34 before our pre-tournament interview. Ready for tee off tomorrow at 7:14 pm ET. Excited & ready to represent #TeamUSA 🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/Qr3fwRBxKN— Xander Schauffele (@XSchauffele) July 27, 2021
Like his teammate, Collin Morikawa has connections to Japan, and Schauffele was quick to share his observations of the most recent Major champion and their shared appreciation of Japanese culture.
“What people don’t really know about Collin is that he’s very particular, and extreme attention to detail with the stuff that he does. That’s something he hasn’t told me, that’s something I’ve observed of him the last couple of days. That’s very Japanese of him to be very fine-tuned and to pay attention to every single thing that occurs. That’s definitely one of his strengths.
“The more we talk the more we appreciate food and the quality of food. How much everyone cares, the cleanliness of things. Everything is just very much in order. People conform to the rules. You put a rule out and everyone’s going to follow the rule.
“For me and I think Collin as well we appreciate that part of Japan, it’s very refreshing and it’s very nice. It’s a very easy quality of life.”
And those thoughts were echoed by Morikawa, who said he loved being in Japan again.
“It’s one of my favourite places to come,” he said.
“This is my fourth time being here, third time playing golf, and it’s not just because I love the area and I love everything about it. But you embrace the culture, you enjoy just being here. I think you feel like you’re a part of the society when you’re here, you feel respected. As athletes you want to be respected. We’re very thankful for being here.”
And as for what he’s expecting this week, Morikawa admitted that the thing with golf compared to other Olympic sports is that there’s no way to really guess who is going to be on the podium come the end of the week.
“I wouldn’t say golf is the hardest compared to something else, because other people might think it's harder when someone dominates so much in their sport. How do you try and medal, be first, second or third?
“Golf is golf, we play four days, every week is different. You don’t know how someone’s going to play and I think that’s what makes our sport amazing is that guys like Xander, JT (Justin Thomas), some of the best players in the world are very consistent.
“When you put it on a stage like this, who’s going to be able to step up?”
But one thing he is certain of is that the course is going to provide a good test to the field, even with incoming rain.
“Out here it’s amazing. Conditions are pristine. It’s unfortunate that we’re going to get a little rain, it’s going to be softer than probably what we would hoped for.
“It’s still going to put a really good test of making sure you’re hitting it really well off the tee, and then seeing what kind of up and downs you can make it. I think you can get some pretty tough lies out here.”