RIO DE JANEIRO — It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. Coming into these Games, the plotline was crystal clear: The top men were ruining golf in the Olympics but the women would save it. After all, the LPGA cleared its schedule for three weeks to give the Games the spotlight it deserved, and every big-name female golfer in the world would be flocking to Rio, packing a broad perspective and boundless enthusiasm
And why not? The Olympics is one of the few platforms in sports where women are treated as equals. Women’s golf, so often unjustly overlooked, would be handing out one of the last gold medals of these Games. It was their time to shine. Speaking for a lot of her brethren, world number one Lydia Ko said, “I think every tournament is very special, but the Olympics was probably the biggest goal of mine this year.”
Much has changed in a week and a half. The male golfers charmed Rio — and the larger sports world — with the gusto with which they embraced the Olympic experience. A spectacular new course was revealed to the world (and by now already feels familiar). One of the biggest crowds of these Games away from the track and futbol arenas turned out for the final round of the men’s competition, which featured a stirring shootout among big-time players. The gold medalist was suitably overwhelmed by the accomplishment and, importantly, had been an advocate for Olympic golf going back years.
How can the women’s competition top all of this? Plainly, it can’t. If you’re looking for an easy metaphor, Matthew McConaughey made the scene in Rickie Fowler’s gallery, while for the first round of the women’s competition, on Wednesday, Kenny G was as good as it would get. But as always it is unfair to make the comparison; the women didn’t ask to go second in these Games. All they can do is offer great golf and their typically swell attitudes, both of which were on display during the first round.
Thai sensation Ariya Jutanugarn, who this summer has emerged as the most dominant force in the game, leads with a six-under 65 built on seven birdies and an eagle, at the par-5 5th. Inbee Park is one shot back after a bogeyless 66. Among those giving chase are Candie Kung (67), and Lexi Thompson (68), Charley Hull (68), Ko (69) and Gerina Piller (69). In all, there were 25 rounds under par on a hot, blustery day, and this stellar play was achieved in high style. There was no Solheim-style face painting but plenty of inspired fashion choices, notably the vibrant skirts worn by Brazilians Miriam Nagl and Victoria Lovelady, featuring green and yellow swirls evoking the iconography of these Games.
If the female competitors are no longer being counted on as Olympic golf’s saviors, they still recognize the magnitude of the opportunity presented by the Games. “This is an extremely important week for us,” said Stacy Lewis, who is in 19th place after a 70. “I grew up probably watching the Olympics more than I watched golf even. To be a part of this is a big deal. The way we play golf is different. Once people experience it and they see it, that’s when they come back. So the more eyeballs we can get on us, the better. We’re constantly fighting for network TV, and that’s one huge part of this week is the coverage that we get, it’s beyond anything I think we could do just as a tour. We can kind of piggyback the Olympics and hopefully grow our tour and grow women’s golf.”
To that point, Kung, an LPGA regular, was taken aback by the scrum of Taiwanese reporters waiting for her. “That’s awesome, because I didn’t expect them to be here,” Kung said.
The beauty of these Games is that so many new stories can be told. Here this week are the charming Maguire sisters of Ireland; Leona is the top-ranked amateur in the world, while her twin Lisa, also a top prospect, is serving as her caddie. Leona admits her sister is a superior putter and after toiling to 74 that left her in 48th place she said, “I should have had her hit a few putts for me.” There is the young Australian duo of Minjee Lee (69) and Su Oh (71), who had to sacrifice their idol to be here. As teens, both Lee and Oh received scholarships and mentoring from Karrie Webb. The 41-year-old Hall of Famer was desperate to play in these Olympics but was bumped off the team by her two protégés; Webb’s disappointment was leavened only by her pride.
There is the surrendipitous presence of Chinese teammates Xiyu Lin (72) and Shanshan Feng (70). Lin was a standout multisport athlete as a kid until Feng’s father, a family friend, convinced her to try golf. The first person Lin ever saw swing a club was Shanshan. They have some work to do over the next three rounds but either one could turn out to be the Se Ri Pak of China. (By the way, Pak is here serving as captain of the Korean contingent.) “As far as the significance of one medal, nothing could be as important or far-reaching as a Chinese golfer winning one,” says Anthony Scanlon, the executive director of the International Golf Federation.
The only thing that might be comparable would be if Park or one of her countrywomen were to claim gold. “In Korea, the women golfers are already larger than life,” says Ty Votaw, the IGF vice president and former LPGA commissioner who spearheaded golf’s reentry into the Games. “If one wins the gold medal, she will instantly be the biggest sports star in that country. Not biggest golfer, not biggest female athlete — biggest star. Period.”
Only three of the 60 players in the field will leave with fancy new necklaces but that is not really the goal for many of the competitors. Asked if she felt any pressure to put on a good show because the men’s competition had been such a homerun, Leona Maguire said, “The best players in the world are here, that’s their job. That’s not my job this week. I’m just out there to have as much fun as I can and do as well as I can, and that’s up to Lydia and Brooke [Henderson] and Ariya and those girls to show that they are the best players in the world.”
Ko, Henderson (70) and Jutanugarn all figure to be factors over the next three rounds but Park will not easily relinquish a spot atop the podium. After a season compromised by a nagging thumb injury, the 28-year-old Hall of Famer didn’t commit to Rio until the last minute. She admitted to being extra nervous on the first tee but enjoyed a stress-free round of precise, fairways-and-greens golf. “I had a really good ball‑striking day,” she said. “I had a lot of opportunities and there was probably two or three more putts that I possible could have made.” That’s a scary thought, coming from one of the best putters in golf history.
Park is unfazed by the intense media attention she and her countrywomen are getting at these Olympics. “Well, I think being a Korean women’s golfer, I think we always have that kind of pressure on our shoulders,” she said. The burden she feels is internal. Park was married in late 2014 and is eager to have children. Competing in Tokyo, in 2020, is far from a sure thing for her. And so the winner of seven major championships has been swept up in Olympic fever, like every other golfer. Of the opportunity to be a part of the Games, she said, “It’s a huge honor, and it could be the highlight of my golfing career.”
Park and the other female golfers are no longer playing to save their sport’s reputation, or its future in the Games. They are playing for themselves, and for their country. That’s enough.