08/09/2016

Gil Hanse faced a unique challenge as he designed the course that will host this week’s Olympic Golf Tournament. The event is no different in format than a regular Tour stop—72 holes of stroke play. But this was for Olympic gold, not a fat check. How did Hanse make it feel like an Olympic course, while incorporating the Rio spirit?

For one, he modeled it off of “Sandbelt” style courses that are common in Australia. These courses rely on the native fauna and sand to shape the holes rather than install trees or rough. As a result, the Olympic course at times looks like a links course and may play most likely like a British Open stop. International players—that is, players from outside the United States (This is an international tournament after all)—may be more comfortable in the environs.

Then came the “Rio-fication,” which wasn’t all that difficult. Hanse simply put a golf course at the edge of a jungle and the wildlife started settling in. Seriously, this has been the latest concern over Olympic golf.

 

But this was for Olympic gold, not a fat check.

 

The real point of distinction on this course comes in the closing holes. Working under limitations that these players are playing for three medals and nothing else, tangibly speaking, Hanse made sure fill his track with risk/reward holes. The opening hole is a par-5. So too is the 10th. And down the stretch players will be forced to go big or go home. The drivable par-4 16th and a closing 571-yard par 5, gettable in two, sandwich the shortest par-3 on the course. A player could feasibly close 2, 2, 3 if he was on a role. At any rate, anyone who steps up to the 16th tee four or less shots back has a chance. And that’s important.

It should make for a rather entertaining tournament even if most of us would prefer match play or at least some kind of team format. The tournament starts Thursday and concludes with Sunday’s final round. Sixty players from across the globe will tee it up. No green jackets, just gold, silver and bronze medals.

Here’s who I like.

Contender

Anirban Lahiri, India

I did something bad. I remembered catching the close of a European Tour stop and thinking, you know that guy doesn’t get enough credit for his longevity and talent. Well, it was Thongchai Jaidee, who it should be said is also competing in Rio, and not Anirban Lahiri, who I initially thought of. That’s my mistake. We don’t see a lot of South Asian golfers. But a funny thing happened. I clicked on Lahiri’s Olympic bio.

Music and listening to music? Computer games and gaming on his computer? PlayStation 2?! I’m rooting for him. Besides, he’s a good player. Lahiri won twice on the European Tour in three week span back in February of 2015. He closed out last season with a T5 at the PGA Championship. Lahiri pops up every now and then and I expect him to play well in Rio. If not, he and I can do battle on Tiger Woods 2004.

Bronze

Kiradech Aphibarnrat, Thailand

Per his Olympic bio, “Known for his go-for-broke style of play.” That sounds like a guy who will go for it all on the closing three holes. Aphibarnrat is one of the most fun players in golf and not just because of his name. He has a wide smile that fits his portly frame. He stands just 5-8 but weighs in at 229 pounds. Something tells me his easy-going nature will play well on this somewhat arbitrary format.

Silver

Justin Rose, Great Britain

The 2013 US Open champion made a point to compete in the Olympics. When he’s on his game there are few better in the world than him—especially in big events. In his last 20 majors, Rose has finished in the top-25 15 times. He’s also claimed seven top-10’s in that span including that US Open win at Merion. Rose has power and finesse game to fit the course and the moxie to fend off competitors. But maybe not animals. I can see him running from snakes and alligators.

Gold

Henrik Stenson, Sweden

Let’s not think too hard about this one. If this tournament will play out closest to a British Open, then maybe the last Open winner should be considered the favorite. When that player fires 63 on the final day, it’s a no-brainer. I like Stenson anyway. His low ball flight allows him to contend in any weather that greets him. Plus, his three-wood is the greatest weapon in golf at the moment. Stenson should be able to reach the 16th green with the club, not to mention the 18th in two shots. He’s the hottest player. He’ll win gold and, like Peter Forsberg, maybe get his postage stamp.