RIO DE JANEIRO – Pop quiz: Who finished third at the 2008 U.S. Open? How about the 2009 Open?
Unless you’re a golf historian or have too much free time, you likely have no idea who “showed” in ’08 at Torrey Pines when Tiger Woods won on a broken leg or in ’09 at Turnberry when Stewart Cink broke Tom Watson’s heart.
The answer to both questions is Lee Westwood. This is by no means a slight against the perennial Grand Slam also-ran, but the Englishman won’t be asked to recount his Sunday at either tournament by his grandchildren.
The hierarchy of history on this is rather clear, winners are remembered, and on rare occasions a hard-luck bridesmaid may rate a mention, but third place is normally an afterthought quickly lost to the fog of time.
That’s not an indictment of those who fall short, just a competitive reality. But on Sunday in Rio those subtleties will give way to the Olympic dream.
The winner of the men’s golf competition will stand atop the podium, accept his gold medal and probably get a little weepy when his national anthem begins to echo off the nearby hills; and he will also have company on that platform.
For the first time in 112 years the runner-up and third-place finishers will leave Rio with something more to show for their efforts than a bloated bank account and a handful of World Golf Ranking points.
For most players, not since Q-School has a score other than the week’s lowest held much interest, but Olympic golf brings new meaning to the concept of a golf trifecta.
“There's no protecting top 10, no protecting a top 5,” American Matt Kuchar said. “You've got to strive to be on the podium, strive to win the gold medal, and hope that if it's not gold, it's silver; and if it's not silver, it's bronze. After that it really doesn’t matter that much.”
How that may change a player’s perspective coming down the stretch will be the topic of much debate on Sunday, but already on Saturday those who would normally not be holding out much hope for a competitively productive week were eyeing the new reality from a different perspective.
Consider Rickie Fowler who seemed to shoot his way out of the tournament with rounds of 75-71 to start the week, but an opening nine of 29 on Day 3 vaulted him up the leaderboard and the American finished the day tied for 14th place, nine strokes out of first but just a touchdown shy of a bronze medal.
“I'm at least giving myself a chance now with the way it looks,” Fowler said. “If I go out and play well tomorrow, I could sneak up there. Normally you don't get rewarded much for second and third, but here, you can walk away with some hardware. Getting the gold may be a little bit of a far stretch right now, but you never know.”
If Fowler sounded a tad too optimistic for some considering his play this week, consider his current position in context.
Daniel Summerhays began the final round of last month’s PGA Championship five strokes out of the lead, which given Jimmy Walker’s play may as well have been 50 strokes, but closed with a 66 and finished alone in third place.
Perhaps even more enticing for those who were harboring thoughts of a medal-winning rally was Jim Furyk at the U.S. Open. The veteran started the last turn 10 strokes out of the lead, posted a best-of-the-day 66 on Sunday and tied for second place.
Both Summerhays and Furyk went home with bigger paychecks than their Saturday fortunes suggested they would, but were otherwise footnotes to the larger narrative.
A similar rally on Sunday in Rio would hardly be a surprise and would certainly qualify as historic.
Earlier this week Bubba Watson joked he would, “lay up and go for the bronze,” at the 18th hole on Sunday if need be, but all one-liners aside there is always a chance a player will reach the Olympic Golf Course’s closing stretch – a scoring buffet which includes a drive-able par 4 (No. 15), short par 3 (No. 16) and a par 5 that’s reachable in two shots for most players in the field (No. 18) – with a choice to make, play bold and try to win gold or conservative to assure a bronze medal.
Added to the equation is the possibility of a tie, which could force multiple playoffs, although recent history suggests there could be a clean sweep with 15 of 39 non-match play events this season on the PGA Tour finishing with solo first-, second- and third-place finishers.
Lost in this medal dynamic, however, is each player’s competitive DNA. Professional golfers are conditioned to post the best possible score regardless of outcome, and Sweden’s Henrik Stenson was rather clear when asked if the prospect of playing for three different places would influence his game plan for Sunday.
“I’ll still be going for first there, even though the consolation prizes might be a little better than what we’re used to,” said Stenson, who is alone in second place one stroke behind front-runner Justin Rose.
Still, there will be worthy consolation prizes that could ease the sting of losing, or at the least make those who come up short part of the historical conversation. Just ask Westwood.