RIO DE JANEIRO — Finally, golf is happy.
It’s been awhile in 2016. The distress of Jordan Spieth at the Masters, the embarrassment suffered by the USGA at the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens, the messiness of completing the PGA Championship.
Then there’s the general malaise in overall participation as golf tries to accurately reposition itself in a rapidly changing culture.
Golf in the Olympics was supposed to be a continuation of the theme. At the 11th hour, the world’s top players were dropping out, giving the impression to many—and most consequentially, to the International Olympic Committee—that the Olympics didn’t matter to golf’s top performers. The Zika virus, security concerns and the environmental, political and economic crisis rocking Brazil made Rio de Janeiro an unready problem spot for the world’s biggest gathering.
But whatya know? Men’s golf in Rio turned out to not just exceed expectations. From the first practice rounds early last week to the medal ceremony on Sunday, it was the most joyful and proud golf tournament of the year, and perhaps many years.
After Justin Rose won with the sweetest of wedge shots from tight zoysia turf on the wonderfully conceived 18th hole of designers Gil Hanse and Amy Alcott’s Olympic Golf Course, the game’s power brokers—Tim Finchem of the PGA Tour, Mike Davis of the USGA, Pete Bevacqua of the PGA of America, Martin Slumbers of the R&A and others—all sat in the front row of the grandstand, seemingly connected by one continuous collective smile.
Agent Mark Steinberg, manager for both Rose and bronze medalist Matt Kuchar, was energetically walking while animatedly talking on his cell phone. Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler showed up to continue their support of all things Olympic golf. Stacy Lewis and Lexi Thompson, in for this week’s women’s competition, were excited observers.
The afterglow had a distinctive Brazilian bounce, as a significant portion of the surprisingly large gallery of more than 10,000 fans—some rather green when it comes to watching golf—who had lined the fairways stuck around for the medal ceremony. In the still bright, early evening light, and framed by a backdrop of Rio’s iconic peaks, the Olympic Course, once looked upon so skeptically, felt like a true place of golf, one that now has a real place in history.
“This all turned out better than could have been expected,” said Ty Votaw, the PGA Tour’s chief marketing officer and vice president of the International Golf Federation, who in his position as point man for golf in Rio had to bear the weight of all the dissent but still found a way to get it done. “There were so many unknowns, but offsetting that were all the heroes who made sure it all worked. The green-keeping staff. The caddies who helped facilitate so many things. And the players, who told the Olympic story to the public and who will tell it to their peers.”
A few months back, Votaw was trying to put an optimistic spin on all the chaos. “Bottom line,” he said, “when the players get there, at some point they are going to feel goose bumps and the hair rising on the back of their neck, and they are going to know they are at the very pinnacle of sport, and they are going to realize ‘This is what I can do in our sport.’ And I believe they are going to go back home and say, it was worth it.”
Votaw turned out to be right, and he’s quietly confident that when the IOC meets in September 2017 to decide which events will be included in the 2024 Summer Games, golf will get the votes that will, in essence, give it a permanent place in the Olympics. And the players who chose not to come to Rio, if not wrong in their decisions, could not have watched the golf event without some pangs of regret.
Hanse, the Olympic Course designer also saddled with the responsibility of cutting through enough Brazilian bureaucracy and general inertia to have the project ready for the competition, had also been under the gun. After the medal ceremony on the 18th green, the usually reserved 53-year-old was emotional. “We couldn’t have drawn up what actually happened any better,” Hanse said. “Sometimes reality beats out the dream.”
In truth, the principals were feeling good on Sunday morning, but didn’t want to speak too soon. Said Steinberg: “I’ve been doing this for 25 years. I woke up this morning feeling a little different. Golf in the Olympics might be brand new, but it definitely felt like the Olympics. A gold medal will be a huge career changer for whoever wins it.”
On the range was the always enthusiastic Gary Player, the South African team leader, 80 years young. Player pointed out that he shot 59 in the 1974 Brazilian Open at another course in Rio, Gavea, still the only 59 ever shot in a national open. Demonstrating, impressively, how finally understanding what Ben Hogan told him more than 50 years ago made it impossible for him to hit a snap hook, Player said he had gone from pessimistic to optimistic about golf’s long-term prospects in the Olympics.
“I’m still disappointed so many player pulled out of what is the greatest show in the world, the best possible platform to showcase our game,” Player said. “I thought the IOC would see that our players didn’t want to play and end golf. Now I’m very optimistic. The event this week has justified our place in the Olympic Games. They have to include us.
“But I’m still a little sad,” he continued. “Because all of us touring pros, golf has made us all what we are. I believe the debt incurred by today’s pro golfer is greater than it’s ever been in history.”
Still, for those who did play in Rio, all seemed to understand they were paying it forward. The tension on the first tee among the last few groups come Sunday was palpable, more like that of a major championship than a regular PGA Tour stop. For those who wondered if the Olympics are made superfluous by the primacy of the four major championships, it’s not the case. Golf in the Olympics will be something distinctive in its own right.
“This event has gone over I think fantastically well,” Kuchar said. “I wasn't really sure what to expect as far as golf in Brazil. I didn't think that it would have great support and it really did.”
Added Rose: “Yeah, anybody making the decision going forward, I would just ask them, were you in Rio on Sunday?”
For if they were, they would know it was a happy day.
Editor's Note: This story first appeared in the Aug. 15, 2016 issue of Golf World.