RIO DE JANEIRO – Maybe it’s the golf course, with Gil Hanse’s handiwork proving to be the light that draws the game’s best players to the top. Maybe it’s the unique gravity of the event, with golf’s return to the Olympics taking on an importance that somehow transcends the game’s marquee stops.
Whatever the reasons that have brought the game’s best and brightest together for the second consecutive week at the Olympic Golf Course, the result is a prime-time leaderboard all vying for a spot on Saturday’s podium.
The uncertainty that seemed to define golf’s return to the Games for the first time in 112 years (116 years for the women) was whisked away last week when Henrik Stenson, the top-ranked player in the men’s field, was outdueled by Justin Rose on Sunday for the gold medal.
While Matt Kuchar proved the unique benefits of a late rally, closing with a 63 to claim the bronze medal, there doesn’t seem to be much of a chance for a like-minded comeback on Saturday at the women’s finale – at least not as far as the gold medal is concerned.
On cue, the competition, or maybe it was the course, has again produced a cast of leading women befitting an event that has gone from curiosity to compelling championship in a fortnight.
World No. 5 Inbee Park continued to surprise most observers through three rounds, essentially going straight from the DL to a potential date with a gold medal.
The South Korean, who hasn’t played an LPGA event since early June while she nursed a left-thumb injury, pulled away from the field on a blustery day in Rio, carding a 1-under 70 for a two-stroke lead.
That she leads world No. 1 Lydia Ko only adds to the notion that however you define the game’s return to the Olympic stage there’s no debating the purity of the competition.
“It’s a great scenario,” said Park, who overcame five bogeys on Day 3 after penciling in just a single miscue for her first 36 holes.
While Park may have put one foot on the podium with her play on a day when winds gusted to 35 mph, the supporting cast is a best-case scenario for those who hope for the best but often brace for the worst at events like this.
Ko rallied early on Friday with an outward nine of 29 that included the New Zealander’s first hole-in-one (at No. 8) to move into a tie for second place with America’s Gerina Piller.
“We all know that there is a lot on the line at the end of tomorrow, but I think I've just got to take it on as just another day out there and just focus on the shot I have in front of me, and have a lot of fun,” said Ko, who finished with a day’s best 65. “To be in this position in my first ever Olympics, I think it's cool enough being there. Just focus and have fun.”
Piller had a similarly light-hearted plan for Saturday’s final round, which will begin earlier than anticipated with the field going off the first and 10th tees in threesomes to avoid a unfavorable forecast, to savor the moment, but history suggests it probably won’t be that easy.
“I think I'm just going to accept [the pressure]. I'm going to welcome them into my head,” said Piller, the only player this week to card three rounds in the 60s (69-67-68).
Sounds solid, but then that ignores what’s at stake on Saturday.
On Tuesday when Piller assembled with the rest of Team USA for a news conference she was asked if she’d ever envisioned herself winning a gold medal.
“I'll probably get choked up even saying this, but just standing on the podium and hearing the national anthem, I think that's pretty awesome,” Piller said before fighting back tears.
And that was on Tuesday.
The unique dynamic of golf in the Olympics, where second and third place take on an entirely new meaning, was certainly evident last week for the men and will undoubtedly be a part of Saturday’s dynamic in Rio.
For Park, however, there doesn’t seem to be much room for a consolation prize. After enduring the worst of years with various injuries and just two top-10 finishes, the Olympics are a chance to change her competitive fortunes in a dramatic way.
The seven-time major winner didn’t even know if she’d be healthy enough to play the Games until about a month ago and arrived in Rio with decidedly low expectations.
But after two nearly flawless ball-striking days, she showed familiar grit on Friday as the winds sent players tumbling down the leaderboard. Without her best game, Park rebounded from bogeys at Nos. 12 and 14 with clutch birdies at the 16th and 17th holes to solidify her advantage.
“It was very challenging conditions. I feel like I really struggled out there,” she said. “My putting was really, really good today, six birdies out in those conditions is phenomenal.”
There has been an ongoing debate the last two weeks with players repeatedly asked to compare Olympic golf to the game’s major championships. Most players sidestepped the issue, figuring golf in the Olympics was just different. Park offered no such ambiguity.
“It's definitely a lot more attention than the major championship. I definitely feel a lot more pressure. I've felt it since the first round of this week,” Park said. “I feel exhausted, every day, it feels like every day is a final round of a major championship in the final group.”
Comparing the Olympics to golf’s Grand Slam gatherings has always felt unfair, unwarranted even, but considering how the final round is shaping up for the second consecutive week it’s certainly starting to feel like a major.