By Mark Zeigler
From The San Diego Union-Tribune
TOKYO—Stefan Schauffele was an aspiring decathlete in Germany 40 years ago when a drunk driver slammed into his car head-on near Weisbaden. His windshield was shattered.
So was his life.
A shard of glass wedged in his left eye, and six surgeries couldn’t save it. The two years away from his sport and the loss of an eye ended his Olympic dreams and sent him hurtling into depression and alcoholism. “A dark time,” Stefan has said.
The cloud had a silver lining, though. He moved to the United States to start a new life, became a golf coach and met his wife at U.S. International University (now Alliant) in San Diego. They had a son who would become a professional golfer and who beginning Wednesday afternoon (San Diego time) will play the opening round of the Olympic tournament at Kasumigaseki Country Club outside Tokyo.
“He’s my swing coach, he’s a goofy guy when he’s on the grounds and we like to have a good time,” Xander Schauffele, one of four U.S. men’s golfers here, said of his father. “But I really do think if there was an opening ceremony that he could have been a part of and walked, I think maybe he would have gotten emotional. Just because it was a dream of his for so long and he put all his eggs into one basket, and it got taken away from him.”
Stefan is here as Schauffele’s coach. But Xander’s mother, Ping-Yi Chen, isn’t. And his grandparents and an estimated 40 other relatives living in Japan who planned to watch him play in person this week can’t because Olympic COVID-19 protocols prohibit spectators.
“It sucks,” said Schauffele, who was allowed to arrive only five days before the tournament and missed opening ceremony. “There’s no nice way of putting it. Anyone who is not aware, golf in Japan is a massive sport. It’s a really, really big deal. … And personally, selfishly, I really want to see my grandparents. They’re getting a little bit older in age. It would be really nice to see them. I’m going to have to come back to see them at some other point.
“We’ll have everyone watching on TV, but it would have been really cool to see them in person.”
Golf has an ambiguous place in the Olympics, and the Olympics have an ambiguous place in golf. They’ve been reunited only since 2016 after a 112-year hiatus with a lukewarm reception.
Only 60 golfers can qualify, less than half a usual PGA tournament, and several heard about the pandemic restrictions—the Athletes Village is two hours from the course by bus, no family, no restaurants, no shopping, no attending other events—and politely passed. Then U.S. Open champ and world No. 1 Jon Rahm of Spain and American Bryson DeChambeau were late scratches with positive COVID-19 tests.
Patrick Reed replaced DeChambeau and is joined on Team USA by Schauffele, Justin Thomas, and Collin Morikawa, fresh off his victory in the Open Championship.
They’re staying in a hotel about 20 minutes from the course.
“Do I wish I could experience the village and what it would be like, just see all the other athletes and how they train, how they work with their physios and things like that?” Schauffele said. “Yes, I think that would be a really cool experience.
“But it’s tricky when you have to allot two hours before an 8 o’clock tee time with warm-up and breakfast and everything. You’re waking up at 3:30 or 4 o’clock in the morning just to get here and warm up. I decided to go the route of staying 20 or 30 minutes away just because of that.”
Schauffele and Morikawa know Japan well (Morikawa’s father is of Japanese descent). Schauffele speaks some Japanese, has visited more than a dozen times and played his first professional tournament at Yamanashi.
They spoke Tuesday about their love of the food, the people, the culture.
“Everything is very much in order,” Schauffele said. “People conform to the rules. You put a rule out and everyone is going to follow the rule, and everyone wonders why the streets are perfectly clean and everyone is in line, versus you go back home and someone might give you a face or something else.
“For me and Collin, we appreciate that part of Japan. It’s very refreshing, it’s very nice. I’ve been in downtown Tokyo and there’s a million people everywhere, but things flow in and out super easy. You imagine, ‘Holy smokes, if I saw this many people in Los Angeles all getting around, it would be an absolute disaster.’ Here, it’s clockwork. There’s no trouble or anything.”
That goes for the golf courses, too, with immaculate greens and picturesque tree-lined fairways dotted with tranquil ponds.
“Conditions are pristine,” Schauffele said. “That’s just the standard here in Japan. If you’ve never played golf here, they like things to be perfect, and they are.”
It might not seem like the perfect Olympics, in a bucolic area away from the city and its clusters of venues and without any fans. But it’s an Olympic Games nonetheless, and Stefan Schauffele finally made it.
©2021 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Visit sandiegouniontribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.