RIO DE JANEIRO – They lined up, shoulder to shoulder. A TV camera hovered close by as their names were announced to the crowd. A final good-luck handshake, or perhaps just a simple nod, and then each player took his turn teeing off on the first hole Thursday at a course that three years ago didn’t exist.
Their resumes, their CVs, their credentials would never be the same.
“A feeling of joy after hitting the first shot,” said Ireland’s Padraig Harrington, who seven years ago became an influential voice in helping golf become an Olympic sport. “I’m an Olympic athlete now. Forever.”
That’s how it was for the 60 players in the men’s field on a historical day for their sport Thursday. For the first time in 112 years, golf balls were struck in the Olympics. This was no mere first round. Players understood the significance of the moment, understood that the tournament they’re competing in this week is just a small part of a bigger happening.
Even though Bubba Watson won’t officially consider himself an Olympian until he completes all four rounds – it’s the Bubba way of thinking – he won’t soon forget this day.
“An amazing feeling,” he said. “I mean, I want to smile the whole time. A couple nights, I wanted to cry (tears of joy) just because golf is in the Olympics and for the first time in my life, I get to be the hero and play for our country.”
Many players have mentioned the different vibe they’re feeling this week. It didn’t just start off the first tee Thursday. It’s been happening in the clubhouse, the players’ locker room.
The golfers have swapped stories of the other Olympic sports they’ve attended in Rio, the athletes they’ve rubbed shoulders with in the Olympic Village. For these two weeks, golf is not an insular sport – and the players have enjoyed being part of the larger community of athletes, a humbling yet intoxicating experience.
“A lot of guys sort of tend to keep to themselves on a week-to-week basis on tour. This week, it feels a little different,” said Australian Marcus Fraser, whose 8-under 63 not only gave him a three-shot lead but also a spot in the Olympic record book for lowest 18-hole score – a pretty nifty accomplishment for a guy who’s here only because four higher-ranked Aussies decided not to play.
“In the locker room, everyone has decided to be here and really happy to be here representing their countries. It’s got a great feel to the locker room, got a real buzz about it.”
“We are all sports fans,” added Belgium’s Nicolas Colsaerts. “We have been going to other events. I haven’t seen my caddie any night. He went to weightlifting today. He’s going to cycling tonight. It’s not often you get to see history being made like this from so close.”
On Tuesday, Matt Kuchar attended the swimming finals at the Aquatic Center. He saw fellow American Michael Phelps win two gold medals to increase his career total to 21, and Katie Ledecky continue her dominance on the women’s side. On Thursday, Kuchar was the lone American in red numbers, shooting a 2-under 69.
“The 10 o’clock (p.m.) start wasn’t the thing I was most looking forward to,” Kuchar said of the late-night swimming schedule. “But once we got there … to see the greatest Olympian ever to claim two more medals, it was just inspiring.
“I know he’s up to 21 now, but when you see that, you think, ‘I’ve got a chance.’ You look at him with such admiration. I’ve got a chance to do what he just did. It’s not going to be 21, but I’ve got a chance to get one. It was really inspiring to see – and great to be a part of.”
Graham DeLaet has attended table tennis, synchronized diving and swimming events in addition to walking with Team Canada in the Opening Ceremony. On Thursday, he hit the second tee shot of the day, following a nervous Adilson da Silva, who delighted his fellow Brazilians with a perfect drive. DeLaet went on to shoot 66 to share second with Open champion Henrik Stenson.
“It’s different for a golfer,” DeLaet said. “We play last week, we come down here for a week, we’re in Greensboro next week, and the (FedExCup) Playoffs start right away.
“But when you see how much this means to the other athletes, they’ve been working at this for four straight years and they are trying to peak for this time. … The pride and the excitement that they have – that’s been the neatest thing for me to see. Just how much this means to those other people.”
So what was Thursday like for the Olympics’ 60 newest athletes? The galleries certainly weren’t jam-packed like at a major, or nearly as bi-partisan as at a Presidents or Ryder Cup. But the golfers saw similarities with the other sports they had attended – pockets of fans cheering for their fellow countrymen.
“Normally most crowds following a group are reasonably neutral and cheer for everybody in the group,” Harrington said. “It was interesting – the cheers were going up and you could look around and tell which country they were. Very much country-based cheers.”
No doubt those cheers will get louder as the tournament gets closer to handing out its three medals. Sunday’s final round, in fact, already is sold out. Nobody wants to miss the podium ceremony.
Actually, the only players missing anything are the ones who qualified but opted not to play. No one cites them by name, but everybody knows who they are. Their decisions are respected but it’s clear that the golfers in Rio are having the last laugh.
“There is so much more to this week than just the golf,” said Great Britain’s Justin Rose, who grabbed his own slice of the Olympic record book by becoming the first player to record a hole-in-one, which he did on the fourth hole Thursday.
“… Should golf be a part of it? Yeah, why not. Does it need to be a part of it? Probably not. We’ll go on, we’ll survive. But for the opportunity to be a part of it, why won’t you take it? I think that’s the way I see it. It’s an opportunity for golf and something that we can all have a lot of fun around.”
For the players in the field, for their caddies and team managers and all others with full-time connections to the sport, it’s been an enjoyable exercise attempting to wrap their heads around what is happening at Campo Olimpico de Golfe. The legacy of Thursday, the legacy of these two weeks – the women’s tournament starts next Wednesday — still has several chapters to be written.
But for 60 golfers who as of Thursday can officially call themselves Olympians, there’s no denying the impact on their careers.
“Every week we play, 156 guys tee it up – and there’s 155 losers,” Harrington said. “This week, 60 guys tee it up – and 60 winners. We’re all winners.
“Every guy is … teeing it up here, thinking, ‘Life is good. I’m an Olympic athlete.’ “