RIO DE JANEIRO – Just over a year from now, and approximately 3,000 miles away if you’re inclined to take Route 4 through the heart of South America, the International Olympic Committee will convene in Lima, Peru, for its next general session. Among the decisions the members will make is whether to keep golf as an Olympic sport beyond 2020.
They will want proof that golf belongs in the Games. Proof that it can deliver on sport’s biggest stage. Proof that it can make an impact globally. Proof, in essence, that it’s worthy of being an Olympic sport.
Justin Rose, a gold medal wrapped around his neck, considers it a no-brainer. He’d only ask the committee members this question.
Were you in Rio on Sunday?
Specifically, were you at the much-praised Olympic golf course Sunday when Rose and Henrik Stenson (that guy again) put on an epic duel for golf’s first Olympic gold medal in 112 years? The drama reached the final green, the two tied for the lead. Rose then produced the biggest pitch shot of his life to set up a clinching birdie and claim a tournament that carries no cash prize but a priceless supply of pride and an endless amount of feel-good memories.
It was as good a show as golf could put on, two world-class players duking it out for 18 holes in front of a sold-out gallery filled with international passion. Throw in the bonus of Matt Kuchar’s 8-under 63 – tying the week’s low round — that moved him into bronze-medal position, and you had a day unlike any other in this sport. Well, at least in 112 years when the last time Olympic medals were awarded to golfers.
Until seven years ago – when men’s and women’s golf was added back to the Olympics program for this year and 2020 in Tokyo – no player thought this moment possible. Now Rose was practically giddy, perhaps still trying to process what had just happened. He looked to his right, Stenson wearing the silver. He looked to his left, Kuchar with the bronze. Just like all the other medal winners at the Rio Games, all three wore their country’s podium jackets specifically designed for the medal ceremony that had taken place on the 18th green just a few minutes earlier.
“To be honest, this is where all the players wanted to be,” Rose said. “There’s no money. There’s not much else to play for, really, other than right up here. And yet somehow the guys really enjoyed the whole Olympic experience. I think that says it all.”
Added Kuchar: “I’m not sure much needs to be said, other than what transpired this week. I think you look at the guys up here. Henrik’s been playing some of the best golf of anybody in the world. Justin is certainly a world-class player. I’m thrilled to be up on the podium.
“To look at the support that was out here, to look at the guys that came through, won medals – I think it speaks for itself. This event has gone over, I think, fantastically well. Amazing support from Watson may have soaked up more experiences in his 10 days in Rio than any other player in the field. He won’t go home with a medal – an opening 73 was too big to overcome – but he doesn’t leave empty-handed.
“I met (American diver) Greg Louganis. The guy is a legend,” Watson said. “Then I got the cowbell rang (by the U.S. swim team, a send-off for their athletes). The field hockey team loves me now. Matt Kuchar got a medal. I’m an Olympian. You want me to keep going? …
“This is the greatest sporting event I’ve ever been a part of and associated with. It’s a thrill of a lifetime. The Masters – I get the Masters for the rest of my life, but it’s just golf. There’s no other events going on. And so when you talk about a sporting event, this is a dream come true.”
Rose, of course, saw his dream become reality. Several months ago, he talked about adding Olympic Champion to his resume alongside his 2013 U.S. Open win. On Sunday, he was asked to compare the two. He deferred, saying it wasn’t fair. Both are equally important in different ways.
One of those big differences, of course, is the frequency. For the forseeable future, Rose will play the U.S. Open on an annual basis, as he will with the other majors. As for the Olympics? Who knows if he’ll even be in the field in Tokyo four years from now to defend his title. And who knows if golf will remain an Olympic sport past that.
All Rose knows is this – he was part of something special this week.
“A cross between a golf tournament and a carnival,” he said. “It was unique, incredible. Coming up with that last pitch when I needed it was magical.
“Hopefully we’ve shown Brazil what golf is about.”
the crowds. I wasn’t really sure what to expect as far as golf in Brazil. I didn’t think that it would have great support – and it really did.
“If you take the broadcast and then look at what a great showdown to have these two guys battling down the end, I don’t know that it could have gone much better for the game. It’s a clear winner to move forward.”
Before this week, you wondered if everybody felt that way. The world’s top-three ranked men’s players – Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy – all decided to stay home due to heath concerns. So did U.S. Open champ Dustin Johnson and a number of other notable names. Those players made decision based on their own best interests, and thus only they can decide whether or not to regret the moves. (This week’s women’s tournament features practically all the big names).
For the men who did show up in Rio, there was an immediate embrace of the Olympic spirit. Many of them, including Rose, as well as Americans Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler, stayed in the Olympic Village, enjoying the camaraderie with athletes from other sports. They took advantage of their all-access credentials to attend other events. There would be no isolation from the key social scene, as golf quickly became part of the fabric of the Games.
Fowler said he spent some time in the gym last week, working out with the swimmers, the track-and-field athletes, the weightlifters and such. “A little tough being in the gym with some of these athletes here,” he admitted.
He noticed the big screens rotated through the variety of sports being played, either live or highlights. Occasionally, golf would get its screen time. “There’s probably a lot of people in there working out that don’t watch golf on a normal basis,” Fowler said. “Seeing us be here as part of the Olympics, it’s at least creating awareness, that’s for sure.”