Right when Schauffele appeared to lose his firm grip on the gold, the 27-year-old American responded with two clutch putts at the end for a 4-under 67 and a one-shot victory over Rory Sabbatini of Slovakia in a wild finish on Sunday.
One was a 6-foot birdie putt for the lead. The last one was a 4-foot par putt for the win.
The tension made the hot air feel even thicker at Kasumigaseki Country Club. When the last group walked onto the 18th green, nine players remained in the mix for a medal.
One of them was Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama, just not the medal that his golf-mad country wanted for him. He was one shot out of the lead when he missed a 3-foot par putt on the 15th hole and never caught up. He missed a 12-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole for the bronze.
And then he left with no medal at all.
Matsuyama was part of a seven-man playoff for the bronze, which included Rory McIlroy and British Open champion Collin Morikawa. Matsuyama made bogey on the first extra hole and was eliminated, ending a week of high expectations. CT Pan of Taiwan, who closed with a 63, won the bronze in a playoff among seven countries that lasted four holes.
Schauffele, whose mother was raised in Japan and has grandparents in the city who were kept from watching him under the ban on spectators, appeared to have this won all along.
Sabbatini set the Olympic record with a 61, finishing with a fist-pumping birdie on the 18th hole. That put him one shot behind Schauffele, who still had two good scoring chances among the six holes ahead of him on the back nine.
And then one swing changed everything. Schauffele sent his tee shot well right of the fairway on the par-5 14th and into the bushes. He had to take a one-shot penalty just to get out, took three more shots to reach the green and made a 5-foot putt to limit the damage to a bogey. He was tied for the lead, with Matsuyama one shot behind.
Schauffele kept his California cool and hit driver into a greenside bunker on the 17th hole, where the tees were moved forward to create some excitement. He blasted out to 6 feet and made birdie to regain the lead.
Schauffele sent another drive to the right on 18, getting a nice kick into the rough but blocked by the trees, forcing him to lay up short of the water. From 98 yards, he hit a lob wedge some 15 feet behind the pin and watched it spin back to 4 feet. He looked more relieved than he was elated after the putt dropped. It was his first victory since January 2019.
Sabbatini had plenty to be happy about with silver. Born in South Africa, he decided at the end of 2018 to become a Slovakian citizen through his wife, Martina, who had a relative running the tiny Slovak Golf Federation. His wife caddied for him this week.