RIO DE JANEIRO – To beat the Iceman, sometimes you have to be the Iceman. That’s how Justin Rose saw his duel with Henrik Stenson for the Olympic gold medal Sunday.
His final-round game plan was simple. “I had to out-Stenson Stenson,” Rose said.
That he did. When the gold medal essentially came down to pitch shots into the par-5 18th on Sunday at the Olympic golf course, it was Rose who hit the decisive shot to claim golf’s first Olympic gold medal in 112 years.
After Stenson’s pitch from 51 yards left him 23 feet from the pin, Rose knocked his pitch from 39 yards – and from a better angle – to just inside 6 feet, leaving him with a certain birdie. That forced Stenson to be aggressive on his birdie attempt. He ran it well past, eventually settling for a bogey.
Rose then converted his short birdie attempt to claim the gold, while his former Ryder Cup partner settled for silver, one stroke ahead of Matt Kuchar.
“It feels absolutely incredible,” said Rose, who shot a final-round 4-under 67 to Stenson’s 68. “The whole week, I’ve been so focused, really, to be honest with you. I’ve been so into it. I’ve been so up for it. I’ve been just so determined, I suppose, to represent Team GB (Great Britain) as best as I could.”
“It was just the most magical week. It really was.”
Stenson figured the final round would turn into a showdown with Rose, and it did after the third member of their group, Australian Marcus Fraser — who started the day in third, three shots off the lead — quickly dropped off the pace.
Given that Stenson last month had flashed his killer instinct to outduel Phil Mickelson for the Open Championship at Royal Troon, you knew he was not going away. Neither was Rose, riding that Olympic spirit.
Stenson caught Rose a few times but never led. Then on the 13th tee, Stenson felt his thoracic spine “kind of lock up on me and started giving me a little grief.” Stenson was attended to by his physical therapist and tried to loosen it but said it might have impacted him on a few bad swings – his second shot at 13, his tee shot at 14 and his second shot at 15.
“You can’t say it’s purely down to that,” Stenson said, “but I don’t think it was a helping thing.”
Still, his birdie at 16 tied it once again – until Rose struck the decisive blow coming into the 18th green.
“Just swam a little bit quicker than me up the 18th,” Stenson joked, making imaginary strokes a la Michael Phelps.
Added Stenson: “Great experience. Happy to leave with a medal. I didn’t play my best but I played good enough to be up in contention all week. I think I did both myself and my country proud.”
As for Rose?
“The first three rounds, they were all great, and I was in a great position,” he said. “But it was about trying to come out on a Sunday in a final and try and bring out your best. That, for me, is what’s fun. Obviously the Olympics is a great arena for that.”
It was unlike anything they had ever experienced.
“A very surreal moment,” Rose said. “It’s very different to any other golf tournament.
“Obviously when the National Anthem goes up, it’s a very proud moment. I feel that’s what the Olympics is about. As well as representing yourself, more so you’re here representing your country and I think that’s a big deal. It’s a very, very proud moment when you’re able to share it with people back home.”
Earlier this week, Kuchar had gone to the tennis bronze medal match in men’s doubles, in which Americans Jack Sock and Steven Johnson faced a Canadian duo. Kuchar was sitting in the players’ box with Jay Berger, the father of fellow golfer Daniel Berger and the U.S. men’s tennis coach.
When Sock and Johnson won, they rushed over to the box to hug everybody. Kuchar heard the sentiment, “I get to wear the jacket.”
Each athlete was given a special podium jacket, but only medal winners get to wear it for its intended use.
“You see all the other people in sports putting on their podium jacket and you think, ‘You know what, I’d really like to put on that jacket.’ I didn’t want to have that just as a keepsake to take home.”
On Sunday, Kuchar got to wear the jacket.