After a 112-year absence, golf returned to the Summer Olympics with a punch—or a series of them. Two of the top players in the world traded blows down the stretch on Sunday.
Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson, both of whom valued these games long before anyone had heard of Zika, engaged in a duel reminiscent of the one Stenson won three weeks ago at Royal Troon for his first major. The Swede looked to capture the rarest of doubles—an Open Championship and a gold medal.
This time, though, he came up just short. And it was Rose who delivered the signature moment the sport was looking for in Rio. A brilliant chip on 18 settled two feet from the hole and the Brit tapped in for a gold medal-clinching birdie. Rose finished at 16-under, two clear of Stenson, and thrust his fist into the air. He grabbed his shirt in a patriotic display. He waved to the crowd as he walked off the green. And he sang “God Save The Queen” at the top of his lungs and the podium.
Rose produced a 67 in the final round. Stenson, a 68. Gil Hanse’s design worked to perfection in this sense. The two men were tied at -15 on the last tee box with the par-5, 18th to play. The tension was palpable, the drama real. When both were forced to lay up just short of green, the ideal Olympic scenario unfolded.
Stenson went first and left himself a difficult putt. Rose stepped up and knocked his approach stiff. His stride recalled the walk at Merion in 2013, the high point of Rose’s career.
How does this achievement compare to that US Open win? That’s the question we all want to answer. In the medal ceremony Sunday, it felt like a big deal. It looked like a big deal. There were probably some golfers watching at home who though to themselves, “I wish I would have went.”
When both were forced to lay up just short of green, the ideal Olympic scenario unfolded.
Rose has a gold medal. No other living golfer can say that. Rio, for all intents and purposes, was a success.
Even the bronze medalist added credence to the tournament. There were birdies out there in the final round to keep as many players in contention as possible. Matt Kuchar was the one who seized the chance. He carded a 63, tying the Olympic record (set Thursday by Australia’s Marcus Fraser), to head to the clubhouse at 13-under-par. Kuchar was all smiles on the podium as he examined his new hardware. Who knows? This might jumpstart his Ryder Cup campaign considering he’s outside qualification.
Either way, it marked a crucial turning point for a man who didn’t even know the format when he arrived in Rio.
So let us gush for a moment. Rose deserves our praises for producing the kind of performance we predicted. In addition his nearly flawless Sunday finish, Rose added a hole-in-one and an eagle 2 on a par-4 to his week in Brazil.
The course was both tough and fair. Most of the players seemed to enjoy themselves immensely with the exception of some cell phone users who forgot that silent mode existed.
But there was also a sense that this was a cool, quadrennial tournament and nothing more. It felt somewhat arbitrary. This was only an Olympic event because it took place in Rio and the player’s wore their nation’s colors.
Much needs to change before 2020. For one, the format leaves a lot to be desired. A 60-player, stroke-play tournament lacks the creativity that other sports showed in their reintroductions. Take a look at Rugby 7’s for the best example, which also debuted in Rio. Beach volleyball has been a huge success since it joined the games in 1996.
Golf, then, should consider similar tweaks. And it has events it can copy. The NCAA Championships are probably the best model. Teams qualify for the medal round through stroke play, which would still give us an individual gold, before competing in match play. The added competition would ratchet up the intensity and make every shot count. That wasn’t necessarily the case when this tournament teed off last Thursday.
But let’s not dwell in the negative too much. This was better than we all thought despite the player absences and schedule annoyances.
Rose may not be a player who moves the needle. Yet in Rio, he turned a lot of ambivalence into pure excitement. That might be the legacy of his Gold Medal.