Following nearly seven years of speculation, seven years of debate, seven years of second-guessing and celebrating, golf’s return to the Olympics becomes very real for many on Friday.
Although golf is still a week away from the start of the men’s competition, the Opening Ceremony is the moment would-be Olympic players penciled into their calendars as something to be cherished.
Henrik Stenson, the favorite heading into the men’s competition following his victory last month at The Open, was scheduled to arrive in Rio de Janeiro Thursday and march with Sweden in the Parade of Nations.
“I want to watch some other events. Try and cheer a few of the other Swedes on,” said Stenson of his Olympic plans that will include a trip to the handball competition.
Anirban Lahiri has an even more aggressive schedule for his time in Rio, starting with the Opening Ceremony, which has been a part of his Olympic plan since it became clear he’d represent India in the Games.
“If you’re going to play in the Olympics in your lifetime you want to do it right, you want to experience being a part of the entire team,” said Lahiri, who hoped to be able to attend various other competitions, including field hockey, tennis and swimming.
American Rickie Fowler, Paraguay’s Fabrizio Zanotti, Finland’s Mikko Ilonen and France’s Gregory Bourdy will also join their fellow countrymen in Maracana Stadium on Friday; as will the LPGA’s Julieta Granada who will carry Paraguay’s flag in the Opening Ceremony.
There are really only two things that separate the Games from almost any other week in professional golf, the Opening Ceremony and the medal ceremony, and, let’s face it, the latter will be a limited engagement for only the top players. It’s a reality that has given the Opening Ceremony added importance for some Olympic players.
The format, 72 holes of stroke play, is standard fare and there will be no team competition, which must have come as a blow to competitor Matt Kuchar when he realized it this week.
Even the way players plan to prepare will not vary from the norm. Stenson, the highest-ranked player in the men’s event at fifth in the world, said he will take this weekend to fully enjoy the Olympic experience before getting back to his day job on Monday.
“Treat it as a normal week from Monday onwards,” Stenson said.
That isn’t an indictment against golf’s return to the Games after more than a 100-year hiatus or a dismissive assessment of the competition; it’s just a proven formula for success. Unlike most other Olympic athletes, professional golfers are geared toward peaking four or five times a year, not once every four years.
For golfers, the Olympic experience may be new but the basic tenets of the competition are very much status quo – practice rounds, practice, play, repeat. Maybe the pressure on Sunday (Saturday for the women) will be different for those vying for medals, maybe there will be more butterflies on the first tee when the gravity of wearing one’s flag is suddenly part of the equation.
But until that competitive epiphany arrives, the most tangible Olympic moment for many players will be putting on the tracksuit, as England’s Paul Casey joked earlier this summer, and marching with one’s country into Maracana Stadium.
Until he won the RBC Canadian Open two weeks ago, the Opening Ceremony was likely going to be the highlight of Jhonattan Vegas’ year, and even a suddenly full dance card because of his improved competitive fortunes didn’t diminish the opportunity to march with his fellow Venezuelans.
“As an athlete walking with all the other athletes representing your country there’s not a greater honor,” Vegas said last week at the PGA Championship. “For us, we don’t get to represent our country very often so there is no better honor.”
For some players, Friday’s Opening Ceremony will likely be an once-in-a-lifetime event, where months of security, scheduling and health concerns can finally be put behind them and they can join the other athletes.
The medal ceremony will undoubtedly prove to be an emotional and rewarding moment for a handful of players, but for the vast majority, for those who ignored the noise and focused on the nostalgia of the moment, the Opening Ceremony will be the pinnacle of their Olympic experience.