RIO DE JANEIRO – At just over 5 feet tall, Victoria Lovelady was always a curious proponent for Brazil and golf’s return to the Olympics.
Carrying the hopes of an entire nation can be daunting, but Lovelady, who was born and still lives in Brazil, was thrust into the role of both ambassador and advocate in the months and weeks leading up to the Games.
One-by-one as the top male players opted out of the Olympics she found herself having to defend her home, having to explain that growing up in Rio mosquitos were a part of everyday life, not a reason to hide. That the construction delays and security concerns that dominated the headlines prior to the Games were not reasons to miss a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
If her advice fell on deaf ears, with four out of the top five male players in the world ranking choosing not to compete in the Olympics, her vindication came on Sunday, as crowds swarmed the golf course to watch Justin Rose dramatically win golf’s first gold medal in 112 years.
Just like that, the 29-year-old was transformed from apologist to apostle.
“Everybody is surprised and really impressed with the whole organization and how everything is running so smoothly,” Lovelady said on Tuesday. “In Brazil sometimes we’re known for being a little chaotic when it comes to big crowds, but I’ve been really impressed with the amount of organization that we are seeing.”
Whether Lovelady finds her way to the podium on Saturday somehow seemed secondary as she enjoyed Brazil’s Olympic moment after so many distractions threatened to undermine golf’s return to the Games.
In a telling twist to the modern news cycle, some remain fixated on who didn’t make the trip to Rio. On Monday, world No. 1 Lydia Ko was asked about the men who, for various reasons, skipped the Games.
“I can't speak for somebody else. Everybody has their own decisions,” the New Zealander said. “But I think I'm pretty sure that they would have watched the games, watched how the guys are playing, and a lot of them would have said, ‘Hey, that's such a great vibe, I wish I was there, too.’”
Lost in that subtle take is the fact that the women enjoy no such distractions. Nine out of the top 10 in the Rolex World Ranking are in Rio, with Ha Na Jang the only exception and that’s because South Korea already has four players qualified (the maximum allowed) for the Olympics.
“For us, we’re all here,” Lovelady smiled.
By comparison, 21 men elected to skip the Olympics. It’s an unfortunate byproduct of timing and circumstances that the women are left to answer for those men who forfeited a possible trip to Rio.
Questions from media members still flummoxed by the decision of some top male players to not participate is one thing, yet many of the women, however unfairly, have been forced into the role of reluctant apologist to a broader audience.
“It was a little bit disappointing hearing from other sports, ‘Why didn’t they come?’ I don’t know, I don’t their reasons,” Paraguay’s Julieta Granada said. “We are here, we are embracing it. We’re doing the best we can. I think the guys will regret it.”
On this front, the women spoke with their actions. While world No. 1 Jason Day, No. 2 Dustin Johnson, No. 3 Jordan Spieth and No. 5 Rory McIlroy decided Olympic golf in 2016 wasn’t for them, from the outset the Games were important to the women; more important than possibly contracting the Zika virus or security concerns or scheduling issues.
Ko never wavered, Norway’s Suzann Pettersen – who was a part of golf’s original bid to be in the Games seven years ago – is in the field, and the top Americans were all gladly fitted for their Olympic tracksuits.
“This is big, this is a bigger stage than we see week in and week out,” LPGA commissioner Mike Whan said. “I heard some guys talk about whether men’s golf needs this, I get that, but we come from all over the world and when you talk to them about the Olympics it’s different.”
Whan and the LPGA made it easy for the top players to choose Rio, building a three-week break into the schedule before and during the women’s competition for those bound for the Games, and made sure the media-driven hyperbole was balanced by facts.
“Regardless of who said they were coming,” Whan said, “40 to 45 of them were going to be LPGA players, so I found it difficult to go play another event and find that they’ve fallen behind [on the money list]. I didn’t want to compete with the Olympics. I wanted to put the light on the Olympics.”
Whatever the reasons for the almost universal support of the women’s commitment to Olympic golf – be it an altruistic love of sport or a bigger picture understanding of what this could do to grow women’s golf – the field assembled in Rio speaks volumes.
On Tuesday as she made her final preparations for this week’s event, Lovelady surveyed the scene with no small amount of pride.
After months of defending her home and her game she would be forgiven for taking a moment of self-indulgent satisfaction. Asked if she felt any vindication after last week’s finish Lovelady didn’t hesitate: “For sure.”