RIO DE JANEIRO – Graham DeLaet picked up right where Canada left off in the last Olympic golf competition, perched near the top of a leaderboard in his quest to win the country’s second gold medal.
That Canada’s reign as Olympic golf champions has stretched 112 years was nothing DeLaet seemed interested in addressing.
“We are the defending champions,” DeLaet said with a sly smile after a first-round 66 left him alone in second place early on Day 1 at the Olympic Golf Course.
Technically, DeLaet was correct. Canadian George Lyon won the individual competition at the 1904 Games in St. Louis, although the United States took the team gold medal. But even that detail doesn’t stand up to a semantics debate since golf’s return to the Olympics this year doesn’t include a team competition.
While the historical significance of DeLaet’s Olympic opening may be an interesting footnote – in fact, it’s why officials sent DeLaet out in the day’s first group alongside Brazil’s Adilson da Silva and Ben An, whose parents were both Olympians –the Canadian’s 5-under card was much more compelling when considered in competitive context.
Widely considered one of the game’s best ball-strikers, DeLaet endured the worst of professional hardships this season when a bout with chipping yips ran him away from the PGA Tour and in search of answers.
DeLaet withdrew from the Memorial in June, sending a social media missive afterward: “I'm dealing with incredible anxiety while chipping/pitching right now. It's not fun.”
He took more than a month off and arrived early in Rio unsure how his game would hold up under the Olympic pressure.
“Everything is feeling better and better all the time,” said DeLaet, who hit 14 of 18 greens in regulation on a blustery first day in Rio. “I know that when I finally get through the whole thing, it's just going to be a little blip on my radar when I look back on my career.”
DeLaet’s outlook on this week’s competition has taken a similarly “big picture” approach. While some of the game’s top players chose to pass on the Olympic experience, most citing concerns over the Zika virus for their withdrawals, the 34-year-old never wavered on his commitment to playing in Rio.
Asked on Thursday if he ever had second thoughts, DeLaet’s answer came quick, “No.” In fact, the father of twins who were born last November said he was already looking forward to 2020 when the Games will be played in Tokyo.
“It's different for a golfer because we played last week, we come down here for a week, we're in Greensboro [N.C.] next week type of thing and the playoffs start right away,” he said. “But when you see how much this means to the other athletes, they have been working at this for four straight years, you can see how much it means to them, and the pride and the excitement that they have.”
If DeLaet was in the minority heading into this year’s Games with such zeal, being a part of the Olympic experience has only solidified his desire to make this more than just a South American cameo. His chipping yips may just be a blip in his career, but winning a gold medal would reach well beyond Rio.
Winning a medal may still be an abstract notion to most golfers in this week’s field, but for DeLaet such an accomplishment would transcend his country’s unique history with Olympic golf or the relative uncertainty associated with the game’s return.
On Tuesday, he visited the Canada House in the athlete’s village and was joined on the shuttle bus by his country’s rugby sevens women’s team fresh off their bronze medal winning performance.
“We got to hold [the medals],” he said. “That's when it really kind of became real to me how amazing it would be to get that chunk of medal. Obviously gold would be incredible, but I think bringing home anything would be really, really special.”
Conditioned as most professional golfers are, DeLaet tempered his excitement after just one round. “I’m only 25 percent done,” he said.
But there’s something about this week that undercuts the old cliché. “One shot at a time,” may work on any given week among the play-for-pay ranks, but the Olympic call is hard to ignore when everything around you is a reminder of what awaits.
That holds particularly true for a player like DeLaet who has been tested to his competitive core this season by the yips and is considered to be among the best players on Tour without a victory, which is something of a backhanded compliment.
Winning a medal – pick a medal, any would do – would qualify as a career-changing, if not life-changing, event for DeLaet.
“We do this for a living week‑in and week‑out, but there was something different about that first tee shot today,” DeLaet said. “We said as we were walking off the first tee, this is pretty cool, first time in over a hundred years, and we're kind of the lead group. It was nice.”
Lyon’s victory in 1904 was a similarly unique story. The last Olympic gold medal-winning golfer hadn’t started playing the game until he was 38 years old and declined to accept his gold medal in St. Louis.
More than a century removed from that last Olympic exchange not a lot has changed other than the guy from Moose Jaw has every intention of keeping his medal, whatever color it might be.