RIO DE JANEIRO – Those who figured golf was never suited for the Olympic podium, that the game’s majors made the Rio experiment a square hoop amid the Olympic rings, were given an alternative to consider on Sunday.
On a warm and sunny day in Rio the world watched golf. Really, the world, not just the avid core who have driven the game for decades.
The majors will always hold a place above and beyond anything else in golf - history wouldn’t allow any other ranking - and the Ryder Cup enjoys special status regardless of the lopsided nature of the last few matches.
But Olympic golf, a novelty concept for most until this week’s event, proved to be something different, something neither better nor worse than the game’s predetermined benchmarks but definitely apart from the norm.
What else could explain Matt Kuchar’s emotions after closing with a 63 to secure the bronze medal.
“This was a chance to medal and do something; my heart was pounding,” said Kuchar, who closed with an Olympic record-equaling 63. “I can assure you I’ve never been so excited to finish top 3 in my life. I’ve never felt this sort of pride just busting out of my chest before.”
It wasn’t an entirely perfect introduction for the game after a 112-year hiatus. The two biggest storylines heading into Sunday were Matthew McConaughey, the man of Oscar-winning fame who made a cameo at the event on Friday to watch Rickie Fowler, and capybaras, the oversized rats that call the Olympic Golf Course home.
Some of that languid start had to do with Marcus Fraser, an engaging Australian who set the early pace for two days. But the 90th-ranked player in the world did little to improve golf’s appeal considering he was the sixth-best Australian who received his Olympic start only after Jason Day, Adam Scott, Marc Leishman and Matt Jones declined to make the trip.
The four Americans in the field also added little to the buzz through three days, with the group a collective 5 over par in Round 1 and none of them inside the top 10 heading into the final round.
On Sunday, however, the game responded with Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson quickly separating themselves from the field and turned what was always going to be a marathon relative to most Olympic sports into a medal-deciding sprint.
The Swede took a share of the lead with a 35-foot birdie putt at the second, the Englishman answered to regain his advantage with a 4-footer at the third and so it went.
The two were tied after the 10th hole and Stenson knotted the proceedings again with a 4 -ooter for birdie at the 16th hole to set up the kind of dramatic exchange one expects at the game’s most important events.
History will show Rose won England’s first gold medal in golf by a cool two strokes, but that detail ignores Stenson’s three-putt at the last after his bold birdie attempt ran some 8 feet past the hole. Players had said all along they wouldn’t play any differently with medals on the line than they would if it were a major, and Stenson’s play proved the point.
Although silver may be an acquired consolation for golfers, Stenson acknowledged the surreal satisfaction of a trip to the Olympic podium, even if the shade of medal (silver) wasn’t exactly what he’d hope to go home with.
“I wanted to put myself in contention and fight it out for the medals and I did that,” said Stenson, who closed with a 68 for a 14-under total. “Of course I would have liked to sit there with the gold rather than a silver but all in all I'm pretty pleased with my performance.”
It’s a testament to Stenson’s resolve this year that his finish was somewhat tempered by what has been by any measure an eventful season after he began the year fresh off knee surgery and withdrew from the Qatar Masters and from the U.S. Open with neck and knee issues.
But he rebounded from those setbacks by winning his first major last month at Royal Troon and seemed to embrace the unique satisfaction of a silver medal on Sunday in Rio.
Even Kuchar’s bronze medal-winning performance was captivating when you consider on July 2, a week before the deadline to qualify for the Games, he was outside the top 15 in the world ranking.
The 38-year-old tied for third at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational to move to No. 15 in the world and when Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth declined their spots on the American team Kuchar found himself bound for Rio.
“I had a great last couple months of golf that crept me inside the top 15 in the world ranking,” said Kuchar, who spent exactly two weeks in the top 15 to earn his spot as an Olympian. “It took a couple guys not playing for me to get in and I thought this might just be fate.”
Not bad for a guy who just a week earlier was unclear on the format for this week’s competition.
But it was Rose’s victory, a ball-striking masterpiece that at least outwardly appeared effortless, that sealed golf’s transition from a curiosity to a competitive fit for the Olympics.
Throughout all the turmoil that seemed to consume golf’s return to the Games – from construction delays at the Rio golf course to concerns over the Zika virus that drove away a healthy portion of the game’s top players – Rose never wavered in his commitment to Olympic golf.
That dedication began with his decision to arrive in Rio early to march in the Opening Ceremony and his dogged focus to treat these Games as more than just a sightseeing adventure interrupted by the occasional round of golf.
While the American team basked in the glow of the Olympic flame, rubbing elbows with other athletes and making regular calls to other events, Rose approached the event with a singular focus.
On Saturday American Bubba Watson admitted, “This is a dream of a lifetime. I'm hanging with the athletes. I mean, golf just gets in my way. I want to go watch the other sports.”
While that approach is perfectly understandable, admirable even for those who had never even been given the opportunity to dream in Olympic terms, it wasn’t good enough for Rose.
Rose savored the experience, but never lost focus on why he was in Rio.
“I made a big deal of this all year,” said Rose, who finished his week with four rounds in the 60s (67-69-65-67) for a 16-under total. “I got in on Friday - that’s typical with what I would do for a major. I felt very inspired this week, very focused and motivated.”
There’s no accounting for what place Olympic golf will hold in the hierarchy of importance in coming years. The fact is the game is assured only one more start in 2020 at the Tokyo Games, but if Sunday’s finale holds any sway it certainly made a persuasive pitch to remain on the podium.
Asked how he would debate the benefits of golf remaining on the Olympic program, Rose went with an economy of words: “Anybody making the decision I’d ask, were you in Rio on Sunday?”