RIO DE JANEIRO – Gerina Piller signed her scorecard, did a couple brief television interviews and ducked outside the ropes to receive comfort from her parents.
The day didn’t go anything like Piller envisioned, and she just wanted a few moments to get over her disappointment in private.
That task wasn’t so simple.
Fans wanted autographs. Some wanted photos with the woman who had America’s best chance to track down Inbee Park for a gold medal at the start of the day. So Piller, nicely, sweetly, wiped away tears and did her damnedest to give them all what they wanted.
Then she looked toward her mother, Rita, and stepfather, Alan Stevenson. Rita threw her arm around Gerina. Alan, a strapping man, softly held Gerina’s hand and the family wandered off to a quiet area near the clubhouse.
No words were spoken. None were necessary.
“What would you say?” Rita said to reporters who asked.
There was pain. There was hurt. But mostly, there was love.
It was a powerful moment.
Gerina began the day within two shots of the lead at the Olympics, an event she’s watched passionately for two decades. She’s never won a professional tournament and this one was within reach. Hey, even if a victory wasn’t in the offing, a medal for a top-three finish seemed highly likely.
None of the above happened.
Piller got off to a shaky start, rebounded but eventually missed key putts down the stretch and shot 74 to miss the podium by four shots.
“We’re heartbroken with her,” Stevenson said, himself struggling to hold back tears. “We’re just as emotional as she is, because she’s our daughter and we care about her. We want what she wants but some days you don’t get that.”
This seemed like it finally was going to be the day Piller was going to get what she wanted. Only four days prior she sat in front of assembled media from all over the world and was brought to tears when asked what it would mean to win a gold medal for the red, white and blue.
Piller, 31, played progressively better over the first three days. A third-round 68 in blustery conditions that produced winds of over 30 mph was one of the best rounds of the week. It allowed her to join Park and Ko in the last grouping on the last day with history on the line.
To add to the dramatics, Martin Piller, Gerina’s husband, had missed the cut at the Wyndham Championship on Friday, meaning he’ll have to go through the Web.com Tour Finals in order to secure his PGA Tour card for next season.
Throw all those elements into one neat package and the stage was set.
But the emotions, which Gerina said she would use to her advantage on the eve of the final round, got the best of her.
“I didn’t even think I had a chance to be here, so to come and to be in contention is all I can really ask for,” she said. “Just going to learn from it and move on."
Just five weeks ago Piller wasn’t on this U.S. Olympic team. A player must be ranked inside the top 15 of the world rankings to qualify and Piller had hovered just outside that mark all summer. Finally, at the U.S. Women’s Open, the last tournament before the Olympic field was set, Piller shot a final-round 70 to tie for eighth place. The result vaulted her barely inside the qualification line.
To put it lightly, the last month has been a roller coaster of emotions for Piller and her family.
“The thing about Gerina in her heart, she’ll keep coming back,” Stevenson said. “She’ll keep showing up, she’ll step up on the tee box and keep swinging at it. She wants to win. Someday she will win. Today wasn’t that day, but she competed and she put her heart and soul into it.”
Said fellow American Stacy Lewis: “Gerina is going to get over this hump pretty soon. She needs the experience of being in these final groups. It’s a different pressure and it’s a different mentality, especially when you have Inbee that’s going crazy. She’s got the game and she’ll get there soon.”
Piller does have the game, that’s the thing. This isn’t a player who just isn’t good enough to close the deal. Sure, the emotions got the best of her this time, but she has eight top-10 finishes on the LPGA this season and is 13th in earnings.
She’s also the single biggest reason why the U.S. defeated Europe last year in the Solheim Cup in Germany. With the cup on the line, Piller drained a key 8-foot par putt to defeat Caroline Masson late in Sunday singles. If she had missed that putt, Europe would’ve won for the third consecutive time.
“It’s tough, just because there’s just so much on the line with golf being back in the Olympics for the first time,” Piller said.
Stevenson matter-of-factly said that his family, Gerina in particular, is not defined by winning or losing, trophies or medals.
“We care about it, that’s why we’re here, that’s why we compete,” he said. “It does break our hearts to see her hurt, but we know that life is bigger than golf. You can learn a lot of life through golf.”
Piller plans to stick around Rio for another couple days and will walk in the Closing Ceremony since she wasn’t able to walk in the opening festivities two weeks ago. She’s bound to feel more emotions – both happy and sad – just like the ones she experienced over the last four days on the golf course.
As the day was drawing to a close, Piller had collected her belongings and had just stepped outside the clubhouse. She was asked one last time if she could attempt to explain what happened during the final round.
Tears began to fall. She couldn’t speak. She was spent.
Piller then looked at Rita and Alan for comfort, just as she had 20 minutes earlier. It was time to leave.
“She’ll shake it off, she’ll be fine,” Martin Piller told reporters in North Carolina. “She ain’t going to let it bother her.”
Her family will make sure that it doesn’t.