Golf proves it belongs in Olympics during Rio Games

By Rex HoggardAugust 21, 2016, 5:30 pm

RIO DE JANEIRO – Apologies for jumping ahead here and for not putting together a formal PowerPoint presentation, but fresh off golf’s fortnight in the Olympics, it seemed like an opportune time to sign the game’s Olympic scorecard.

We know this will be an ongoing process and a final decision on golf’s future in the Olympics won’t be made until September 2017 when the International Olympic Committee finalizes the Games’ program beyond 2020 during its session in Lima, Peru.

You’ll be busy looking at every Olympic event before then so we’ll keep this concise – golf has proven it deserves it spot on the podium.

“We are going to tick a lot of boxes here,” said Peter Dawson, president of the International Golf Federation on Saturday in Rio. “We’re not complacent. There is a lot of competition for staying in the Olympic Games with all the various events. We’re going to put golf’s credentials forward the best way we can.”

Specifically those boxes include spectator interest, television ratings, commercial success and how the players behaved while in Rio.

And, of course, the competitive purity of the events, but on that it’s best to let the athletes do the talking.

“Anybody making the decision [whether golf remains in the Olympics beyond 2020] going forward, I would just ask them, ‘Were you in Rio on Sunday?’” Justin Rose said.

If you weren’t in Rio for the final round of the men’s competition, or perhaps you were under a rock, the CliffsNotes recap will suffice: Rose and Henrik Stenson went toe-to-toe until the last hole in the men’s competition, where the Englishman secured the gold medal in dramatic fashion with a birdie. Just for good measure, American Matt Kuchar tied the then-course record (63) in the final round to win the bronze medal.

On the women’s front, former world No. 1 Inbee Park beat current No. 1 Lydia Ko in a rout for the gold medal, but the competition for the silver and bronze medals also came down to the last hole.

Yep, that happened.

“If you can’t see golf in the Olympics after two fantastic weeks back-to-back you can’t have much of a sporting heart,” said Norway’s Suzann Pettersen, who was a part of golf’s original bid to re-enter the Games in 2009.

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Beyond the competition, however, is where we believe golf truly proved its worth.

You threw us a curveball in golf’s Olympic debut. There was no golf course in Rio, no infrastructure to build a layout and virtually no interest in the game.

“It was harder to get here than I expected,” admitted Dawson, “given the difficulties of getting the course constructed.”

Golf delivered a course that proved to be up to the test with the potential of leaving a true legacy in Rio thanks to architect Gil Hanse, who was last seen sleeping off what has been a difficult few years.

Let the record show the game did have some participation issues, specifically on the men’s side where four out of the top 5 in the world rankings took a pass on Rio, but given the response from those who did make the trip, that shouldn’t be a problem in Tokyo - site of the 2020 Games - and beyond.

There were those who argued that golf in the Olympics was an unnecessary evil, that the game’s majors were the pinnacle of success and didn’t need any company, but as many athletes explained over the last two weeks, the Games are simply a different side of the same coin – neither better nor worse than a Grand Slam, just different.

“Saying it’s worth less than a Grand Slam [event] is not a reason for not playing,” Dawson said. “If that was the logic you’d never play any tournament other than a major. You wouldn’t play the Phoenix Open, you wouldn’t play the John Deere [Classic].”

But golf’s reach in its first Olympics in over 100 years went well beyond the confines of the golf course.

Sunday’s coverage of the men’s competition on NBC and Golf Channel ranked as the second-highest rated 90-minute window of final round golf coverage in 2016 with a combined 5.6 household rating and 8.8 million average viewers, behind only the Masters, which is kind of a big deal in golf.

Even the galleries exceeded expectations, with the final round of the men’s event sold out, which was no small thing considering that golf in Brazil is very much a curiosity.

The commercial impact of golf’s return to the Games will take some time to gage, but anecdotally consider the potential impact a soft-spoken 18-year-old could have in India, where an estimated 75,000 people play golf out of 1.25 billion citizens.

On Thursday Aditi Ashok carded a second-round 68 to move to within three strokes of the lead, setting off a frenzied attempt to put the Indian teen’s accomplishment in context. Consider that over 400,000 Indians searched for Ashok’s name on Google after Round 2 in Rio, that was more than searched for “Rio Olympics” and “Ryan Lochte,” for what’s it worth (as an aside, “golf” Google searches spiked over 110 percent during the Games).

For at least a single afternoon, golf mattered in a country where golf never matters. Where the 10 most popular sports, according to Indian Golf Union council member Dilip Thomas, are “cricket, cricket, cricket and cricket . . . ”

When we first made our pitch for golf’s return to the Olympic stage in 2001 it was, admittedly, an amateurish attempt. Seven years later we clearly made a more persuasive argument. Now we come to you, the IOC, again with a story to tell; but this time instead of vague promises we bring verifiable facts – a track record of our successes and failures to decide if the game, our game, is worthy of remaining in the Olympic family.

“Our performance here in Rio is just going to help us, it’s done marvelous and so many of the IOC members suddenly realize what a great game golf is and what a show we’ve put on here,” Dawson said.

Take your time, consider the facts, digest what golf did despite the obstacles in our path. Forget the emotion of the competition, forget Gerina Piller’s tears on Saturday after failing to earn a medal or Kuchar’s pride of claiming a bronze that far transcended your random third-place finish.

Look only at the checklist of golf’s accomplishments as you decide our Olympic fate.

“As far as I can see golf will tick many, many boxes,” Dawson said.

Drop microphone. Walk off.

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Recovering Thomas thinks Match Play could help cause

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 10:07 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – It’s been a tough couple of days for Justin Thomas, and he hasn’t played an event in three weeks.

The world’s second-ranked player had his wisdom teeth removed on March 7 following the WGC-Mexico Championship and has been recovering ever since.

“I'm feeling OK. As funny as it is, as soon as I got over my wisdom teeth, I got a little strep throat,” Thomas said on Tuesday at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. “I was pretty worried yesterday, to be honest, how I was going to be doing, but I feel a lot better today and just keep taking medicine and hopefully it will be good.”

Thomas, who is listed in the Tour media guide as 5-foot-10, 145 pounds, said he lost about 6 pounds when he had his wisdom teeth removed and has struggled to put that weight back on because of his bout with strep throat.

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As a result, his energy levels are low, which is a particular concern considering the marathon nature of the Match Play, which could include as many as seven rounds if he were to advance to Sunday’s championship match. Thomas, however, said the format could actually make things easier this week.

“I told my dad, I only have to beat one person each day. I don't have to beat the whole field,” said Thomas, who has won just one match in two starts at the Match Play. “If it was stroke play then I may have a little harder time. But hopefully each day I'll get better and better. Who knows, maybe that will help me win a match in this golf tournament, because I've had a pretty hard time in the past.”

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Spieth thought Mickelson blew him off as a kid

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 7:50 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Phil Mickelson is widely recognized as one of the PGA Tour’s most accommodating players when it comes to the fans and signing autographs.

Lefty will famously spend hours after rounds signing autographs, but sometimes perception can deviate from reality, as evidenced by Jordan Spieth’s encounter with Mickelson years ago when he was a junior golfer.

“I think I was at the [AT&T] Byron Nelson with my dad and Phil Mickelson and Davis Love were on the putting green. I was yelling at them, as I now get annoyed while I'm practicing when I'm getting yelled at, and they were talking,” Spieth recalled. “When they finished, Phil was pulled off in a different direction and Davis came and signed for me. And I thought for the longest time that Phil just blew me off. And Davis was like the nicest guy. And Phil, I didn't care for as much for a little while because of that.”

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Entering his sixth full season on Tour, Spieth now has a drastically different perspective on that day.

“[Mickelson] could have been late for media. He could have been having a sponsor obligation. He could have been going over to sign for a kid’s area where there was a hundred of them,” Spieth said. “There's certainly been kids that probably think I've blown them off, too, which was never my intention. It would have never been Phil's intention either.”

Spieth said he has spoken with Mickelson about the incident since joining the Tour.

“He probably responded with a Phil-like, ‘Yeah, I knew who you were, and I didn't want to go over there and sign it,’ something like that,” Spieth laughed. “I’ve gotten to see him in person and really see how genuine he is with everybody he comes in contact with. Doesn't matter who it is. And he's a tremendous role model and I just wasn't aware back then.”

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This week, let the games(manship) begin

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 7:47 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – The gentleman’s game is almost entirely devoid of anything even approaching trash talk or gamesmanship.

What’s considered the norm in other sports is strictly taboo in golf - at least that’s the standard for 51 weeks out of the year. That anomaly, however, can be wildly entertaining.

During Monday’s blind draw to determine this week’s 16 pods, Pat Perez was the first to suggest that this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play is the exception to the stoic rule on the PGA Tour.

“Me and Branden [Grace] played a nine-hole match today and were chirping at each other the entire time,” Perez laughed. “Stuff like, ‘go in the trees.’ We were laughing about it, I didn’t get mad, I hit it in the trees.”

Although Perez and Grace may have been on the extreme end of the trash-talk spectrum, it’s widely understood that unlike the steady diet of stroke-play stops in professional golf, the Match Play and the Ryder Cup are both chances to test some of the game’s boundaries.

“There’s been a couple of different instances, both in the Ryder Cup. I can't share them with you, I'm sorry,” laughed Jordan Spieth, before adding. “I think they [the comments] were indifferent to me and helped [U.S. partner Patrick Reed].

Often the gamesmanship is subtle, so much so an opponent probably doesn’t even realize what’s happening.

Jason Day, for example, is a two-time winner of this event and although he was reluctant to go into details about all of his “tricks,” he did explain his mindset if he finds himself trailing in a match.

“Always walk forward in front of the person that you're playing against, just so you're letting them know that you're pushing forward and you're also letting them know that you're still hanging around,” Day explained. “People feed off body language. If I'm looking across and the guy's got his shoulders slumped and his head is down, you can tell he's getting frustrated, that's when you push a little bit harder.”

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Some moments are not so innocent, as evidenced by a story from Paul Casey from a match during his junior days growing up in England.

“I remember a player’s ball was very close to my line, as his coin was very close to my line and we were still both about 10 feet away and he kind of looked at me,” Casey recalled. “I assumed he looked at me to confirm whether his marker was in my line and it needed to be moved. I said, ‘That's OK there.’ So he picked [his coin] up. And then of course he lost his ability to understand English all of a sudden.”

While the exploits this week won’t be nearly as egregious, there have been a handful of heated encounters at the Match Play. In 2015 when this event was played at Harding Park in San Francisco, Keegan Bradley and Miguel Angel Jimenez went nose to nose when the Spaniard attempted to intervene in a ruling that Bradley was taking and the incident even spilled over into the locker room after the match.

But if those types of encounters are rare, there’s no shortage of mind games that will take place over the next few days at Austin Country Club.

“It's part of it. It should be fun,” Spieth said. “There should be some gamesmanship. That's the way it is in every other sport, we just never play one-on-one or team versus team like other sports do. That's why at times it might seem way out of the ordinary. If every tournament were match play, I don't think that would be unusual.”

It also helps heat things up if opponents have some history together. On Tuesday, Rory McIlroy was asked if he’s run across any gamesmanship at the Match Play. While the Northern Irishman didn’t think there would be much trash talking going on this week, he did add with a wry smile, “Patrick Reed isn’t in my bracket.”

McIlroy and Reed went head-to-head in an epic singles duel at the 2016 Ryder Cup, which the American won 1 up. The duo traded plenty of clutch shots during the match, with Reed wagging his finger at McIlroy following a particularly lengthy birdie putt and McIlroy spurring the crowd with roars of, “I can’t hear you.”

It was an example of how chippy things can get at the Match Play that when McIlroy was asked if he had any advice for Spieth, who drew Reed in his pod this week, his answer had a bit of a sharp edge.

“Don't ask for any drops,” laughed McIlroy, a not-so-subtle reference to Reed’s comment last week at Bay Hill after being denied free relief by a rules official, “I guess my name needs to be Jordan Spieth, guys,” Reed said on Sunday.

Put another way, this is not your grandfather’s game. This is the Match Play where trash talking and gamesmanship are not only acceptable, but can also be extremely entertaining.

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Romo set to make PGA Tour debut at Punta Cana

By Will GrayMarch 20, 2018, 6:43 pm

While much of the attention in golf this week will be focused on the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in Austin, Tony Romo may send a few eyeballs toward the Caribbean.

The former quarterback and current CBS NFL analyst will make his PGA Tour debut this week, playing on a sponsor invite at the Corales Punta Cana Resort & Club Championship in the Dominican Republic. The exemption was announced last month when Romo played as an amateur at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, and he's apparently been hard at work ever since.

"I'll be treating it very serious," Romo told reporters Tuesday. "My wife will tell you she hasn't seen me much over the last month. But if you know me at all, I think you know if I care about something I'm going to commit to it 100 percent. So like I said. you'll get the best I've got this week."

Romo retired from the NFL last year and plays to a plus-0.3 handicap. In addition to his participation in the Pebble Beach event, he has tried to qualify for the U.S. Open multiple times and last month played a North Texas PGA mini-tour event as an amateur.

According to Romo, one of the key differences between pro football and golf is the fact that his former position is entirely about reactive decisions, while in golf "you're trying to commit wholeheartedly before you ever pull the club out of your bag."

"I'm not worried about getting hit before I hit the ball," Romo said. "It's at my own tempo, my own speed, in this sport. Sometimes that's difficult, and sometimes that's easier depending on the situation."

Romo admitted that he would have preferred to have a couple extra weeks to prepare, but recently has made great strides in his wedge game which "was not up to any Tour standard." The first-tee jitters can't be avoided, but Romo hopes to settle in after battling nerves for the first three or four holes Thursday.

Romo hopes to derive an added comfort factor from his golf in the Dallas area, where he frequently plays with a group of Tour pros. While Steph Curry traded texts with a few pros before his tournament debut last summer on the Tour, Romo expects his phone to remain silent until he puts a score on the board.

"I think they're waiting to either tell me 'Congrats' or 'I knew it, terrible,'" Romo said. "Something along those lines. They're probably going to wait to see which way the wind's blowing before they send them."

Romo will tee off at 8:10 a.m. ET Thursday alongside Dru Love and Denny McCarthy.