Olympics 2016: The Men Got Olympic Golf Off to a Rousing Start

August 17, 2016

Well that was fun. But what does it all mean?

That question remained after Great Britain’s Justin Rose made a clutch up-and-down birdie on the par-5 18th to beat Ryder Cup teammate Henrik Stenson at the new course in Rio de Janeiro’s Barra da Tijuca zone, earning the first men’s Olympic golf gold medal in 112 years. Stenson wore the silver, and Matt Kuchar parlayed a final-round 63 into the bronze.

“It will take some time to realize what really happened here,” said Martin Kaymer, a two-time major champion from Germany who nonetheless called Rio the best week of his career. And that was before the tournament had even started.

Yes, it will take some time, and you could hear NBC and Golf Channel announcers straining to make sense of it. Johnny Miller said that in time Rose’s Olympic gold would feel the same as a major. Will it, really?

The week did not feel like a major, with just 60 players in the field, many from deep down in the World Ranking. Nor did it look like one, with those sometimes odd-looking uniforms in lieu of players’ usual logoed garb. (The understated H&M shirts worn by Stenson and fellow Swede David Lingmerth won the final day; Great Britain’s wild, busy tops recalled Team USA’s pizza shirts at the 1999 Ryder Cup.)

Will it tarnish the medals that Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott, among others, opted out? Perhaps, but keep in mind that Stenson beat those guys and more at the British Open last month, and Rose beat Stenson in Rio, so by the transitive property he’d have handled those big-name no-shows too. Or something like that.

And what of the future? Golf will be back for Tokyo 2020, but the IOC hasn’t committed to anything beyond that.

Was it good for golf? Will it help get Rose into the Hall of Fame? Can Stenson list it under “extracurricular activities” on his Player of the Year application? Was it worthy of the five rings, and did it look … Olympian?

“Just to qualify for the team was really—it’s a boyhood dream come true,” said Kuchar, who got in only after Spieth passed. “I kind of lucked into the last spot.”


“The thrill of a lifetime,” said Bubba Watson, who listed meeting Greg Louganis as well as two other divers and several field hockey players as his personal highlights. (Watson shot a final-round 70 to tie for eighth.)

Sure enough, whatever this was, it looked like fun.

Another American in the field, Rickie Fowler, who fired a sizzling third-round 64 only to fall back again with a 74 on Sunday to finish 37th, hung out with Michael Phelps and was followed in round two by his social media pal Matthew McConaughey. Fowler and his golfing BFF, Watson, were roomies in the Athletes’ Village.

Australia’s Marcus Fraser, the 90th-ranked player in the world who led for the first two rounds before two 72s dropped him into a tie for fifth, had big fun in part because an old schoolmate carried his bag. Kaymer, who shot a final-round 66 to finish 15th, ran into countryman Andreas Toba, a gymnast, in an elevator. Toba had competed through tears while injured, and Kaymer spoke of being moved by his passion: “He said, ‘Martin, the pain…you cannot imagine how much pain I had. But that’s just what we do here.”

But what was golf doing there? To answer that question, you have to wrestle with the existential crisis that hangs over the sport. We are at the end of a disjointed season in which an injured Tiger Woods missed all four majors for the first time in his career. Four first-time major winners stole the headlines, while McIlroy and Spieth seemed unusually irritable. Nike recently announced it is getting out of the golf-equipment business.

Where is the sport going? Is there a post-Tiger plan?

Not long ago, in 2005, 30 million golfers played 550 million rounds at 16,000 facilities—just off the peak of 30.6 million players two years earlier. Today, Woods’s injury- and scandal-plagued career appears to be on life support, but it’s the vitality of golf itself that is of far greater concern.

The number of golfers is down to 25 million, a 17% drop, and the Gil Hanse-Amy Alcott masterpiece in Rio notwithstanding, more courses are closing than opening. Spending is down. Kids and millennials who haven’t embraced the game may be too immersed in their devices to do so.

Golf’s power brokers have introduced several initiatives to slow if not reverse the negative trend—the Drive, Chip & Putt Championship, for one—and getting golf into the Olympics was a piece of this objective. It was quite clearly worth doing, even if some of the top players didn’t think so.

As for the long-term ramifications, the impact on Rose’s career, and whether or not anyone got bit by a Zika-carrying mosquito, only time will tell.