The Olympics' Broad Appeal Unquestionably Raised the Profile of Women's Golf
I watched the finale of golf's return to the Olympics at a corporate facility -- a course and hotel and conference center -- owned by Chubb Insurance. It's called the Ace Club, and it's as egalitarian as a club could be. The director of golf is a woman, women and men have equal access to the tee sheet and every hole has five sets of tees. In other words, this is a place that caters to everyone.
There are two flatscreens in the grillroom. At half past 12 on Saturday, one showed Nigeria and Honduras playing football for a bronze medal. Nobody was paying attention. The other showed the women's golf. I can't say the lunch gang was riveted, but when Linda Nevat, the club's director of golf, explained that there would be a sudden-death playoff if there were any sort of tie for a medal, interest perked up.
That's because the Ace Club is in the United States -- in suburban Philadelphia -- and an American golfer, Stacy Lewis, had a chance to medal. Lewis, with her final-round 66, was in the house early at 275, nine under par. A dozen golfers were still on the course. Inbee Park, one of the most underappreciated professional athletes in the world, pretty much had a stranglehold on the gold. But silver and bronze were there for the grabbing, and the course, designed by Gil Hanse, is not one on which you can let your guard down for a minute. There were funky lies in the sandy rough (love it!), water hazards that made you think twice (the only real way to get an elite player's attention) and greens that had a nice, but not ridiculous, amount of movement to them.
Not that Russia's Maria Verchenova had any problem with them. She posted a final-round, course-record 62, with the help of a six-iron ace on the par-3 4th and the holing of (approximately) six miles of putts. Verchenova is beautiful and stylish and her English is perfect, and if you knew her name before these Summer Games you must follow amateur golf in Russia very closely. But that's the broad, broad appeal of the Olympics: the breakout star. Who knows what one hot round of golf will produce, for Verchenova as a golfer or for her country as a golfing nation?
Along those same lines, Hanse left Rio with an enhanced reputation too. The architect, who lives outside of Philadelphia, has been well known to readers of golfclubatlas.com for years, but he has toiled in the shadows of his more famous design brethren, including Tom Doak, Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore. That's no longer the case. A couple of days ago, I was at a public course on Long Island called Tallgrass Golf Club, built on a former sod farm. I asked the young man behind the counter if he had ever met Hanse, and he gave me a kind of blank look.
"He's the guy who designed this course," I said.
"He designed the Olympic course," I said.
Recognition washed over the kid's face.
Oh, that guy.
In the end, the women's golf, at the top of the board, did not reveal any new stars. Verchenova finished 16th. There was no playoff. Inbee Park won by five over Lydia Ko, and Shanshan Feng of China took bronze, one stroke behind Ko. Feng, 27, is not a boldface name at the Ace Club, but she plays the world and has won everywhere. She's the Babe Zaharias of Chinese women's golf.
Lewis, who went to Rio as a sort of honeymoon -- she was married on Aug. 6 -- finished a shot behind Feng, as did Haru Nomura of Japan. Well, at least Lewis had a piece of the course record for a couple of days, off her second-round 63. Also, she was on the receiving end of the kind of anecdotal evidence that can sometimes reveal a truth that more scientific metrics cannot. "My parents have gotten messages from people they haven't heard from in years," Lewis said. "They are watching golf because it's part of the Olympics."
The people at the Ace Club would say the same. As Park and Ko and Feng stood on the podium, the white-haired, fair-skinned gent next to me watched the proceedings with unmistakable awe. You couldn't help but notice that all three had similar dark eyes, dark hair, dark skin. A native of China and two natives of Korea. It would be so easy to say, whatever happened to . . . name your blonde. "How these women approach the game, it's just so impressive," the man said to me. "I've read that Lydia Ko spends 85% of her practice time on her short game."
I couldn't tell you what the man's level of interest in women's golf was before the Olympics. Whatever it was, now it's deeper.