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Saturday, August 20, 2016

Golf in the Olympics: Pretty cool

   It was an Olympian task, this return of golf to the Summer Games.
   It seemed fairly simple at first. A game that is played in a lot of the world, albeit primarily by rich people, probably deserved to be included in the roster of sports that get the Olympic treatment, you know the medals, the national anthem of the gold medal winner, the whole bit.
   Turned out the toughest people to convince of that were some of the best male players on the planet. They pretty much decided they didn’t think their game really did deserve all that. And, well, a lot of commentators agreed with them.
   It was too late, though. The preparations had been made. Gil Hanse -- yes, the guy from Malvern who designed Applebrook -- won the bid to design a golf course in Rio de Janeiro, beating out people like Jack Nicklaus and Annika Sorenstam and Greg Norman and I think Gary Player might have been in there and Tom Doak, whose Stonewall will get some national exposure at next month’s U.S. Mid-Amateur comes to Chester County. You know Stonewall, right across the street from French Creek, designed by Gil Hanse. But I digress.
   They kept it simple, a 72-hole stroke-play tournament for the men the first weekend, a 72-hole stroke-play tournament for the women the second weekend. And you know what, it was pretty cool, probably much to the surprise of four of the top five men in the in the World Golf Ranking, Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy, and to all those golf commentators who kept throwing cold water on the whole idea.
   I probably watched a lot more of it than most people did, considering I spent most of the last two weeks hanging out in the caddyshack at Stonewall, where the combination of too many caddies and too few golfers conspired to give me plenty of quality viewing time, particularly in the morning. You can’t always get a room full of caddies to agree on what should be on TV, but golf often works. We spend most of the time trying to read the greens, no easy feat in two dimensions.
   Bottom line: Five of the six medalists are major champions, which would seem to validate the concept of golf in the Olympics and Hanse’s design. The cream rose to the top at the Olympic Golf Course.
   Yes, the fields of 60 were quirky. Some of the men and women you won’t be seeing in the FedEx playoffs or the LPGA’s CME Group Tour Championship. Which in the case of Russia’s Maria Verchenova, No. 348 in the Rolex Ranking who now owns the course record at Hanse’s creation after a final-round 62 that included a hole-in-one, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
   But the competition was fierce. Maybe that Olympic spirit thing that everybody is always blabbing about is a real thing and maybe it inspired the world’s golfers in a way they didn’t expect. You could tell by listening to some of them that it was pretty cool to be a small part of an event that was producing incredible athletic achievements all around them. And that the whole world was watching.
   Two of Justin Rose’s biggest wins, the 2010 AT&T National and the 2013 U.S. Open, came at two of America’s – and Delaware County’s – classic courses, the Donald Ross design at Aronimink and the Hugh Wilson design – and I would argue that William Flynn had more to do with the final product as the first greenskeeper than people realize – at Merion’s East Course, respectively.
   Well, add one gold-medal-winning performance at Hanse’s Olympic Golf Course in the world’s newest golf hotbed of Rio de Janeiro to the list.
   It was a pretty riveting battle down the stretch between Rose and Sweden’s Henrik Stenson for the gold in Rio. As Johnny Miller pointed out, the Hanse design allowed for about nine birdie holes. The finish in particular -- a drivable par-4 16th, a short par-3 17th and a reachable-in-two par-5 18th hole -- made for a lot of options for the players.
   Stenson, by the way, was the one player in the top five of the World Golf Ranking who decided to show up in Rio and was rewarded with silver. He was in the middle of one of the best stretches of golf of his career, including that epic final-round shootout with Phil Mickelson at Royal Troon – caught almost every shot of that in the caddyshack at Stonewall as well.
   But something else funny happened during that final round of the men’s event. Bronze. At most golf tournaments third place is meaningless, unless of course you’re the guy or gal cashing the check.  But not in Rio. No, third place got you on the medal stand. That was something worth playing for.
   Only one of those six golf medalists is not a major champion. Only one of those six medalists is American. That would be bronze medalist Matt Kuchar. He is an immensely likable guy. He once led the Masters for about 15 seconds – he was on my fantasy team that year, that’s the only reason I remember. He did win a U.S. Amateur.
   And the possibility of winning a bronze medal produced the best round of golf he might ever have played. And he couldn’t wipe the smile off his face. And he couldn’t say enough times what a “sense of pride” he had when he was on that medal stand.
   Unlike many of the top men, the women embraced Olympic golf from the start. In the case of gold medalist Inbee Park, she skipped two major championships hoping her injured thumb would heal enough to allow her to tee it up in Rio.
   She is the best putter I have ever seen, male, female, Martian, whatever. Of course not a lot of men in this country know that because women’s golf here is still sort of viewed in the same vein as that Tom Hanks speech in “A League of Their Own,” you know the one that starts with, “I don’t have ballplayers, I’ve got girls ...”
   Women’s golf in Asia is something of an ATM machine for the LPGA, but of course, they don’t have the NFL to tell them that every other sport is inferior to whatever they’re watching. But I digress again.
   While Park was rolling in everything she looked at on her way to a five-shot triumph, though, that medal thing came into play again. Lydia Ko, who is an absolute magician on the golf course, rolled in a tough birdie putt on the 18th hole to grab the silver for New Zealand and looked like she felt like she had won. Shanshan Feng of China got the bronze and a billion or so Chinese will no doubt be surprised that they have a golfer good enough to count in the medal standings.
   By the way, when the wind came up during the third round of the women’s tournament, Hanse’s design showed a little more teeth.
   There was no American on the medal stand at the end of the Olympic women's tournament, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Stacy Lewis fired a brilliant 63 in the second round to get herself in the mix and left a birdie putt on the lip at the 72nd hole that would have gotten her in a playoff with Feng for bronze. And she looked pretty ticked off about it.
   And then there was Gerina Piller. She wants to be known as more than the woman who rolled in the putt that gave the U.S. a remarkable comeback win over the Euros at the 2015 Solheim Cup. She wants to be known as more than a talented player who can’t quite close the deal.
   She wanted a medal at Rio. And she was in great position to do just that in the final round. And she let is slip away. And it reduced her to tears.
   She had clearly put her heart and soul into getting a medal at the Olympics and it killed her not to get it done. And it was pretty neat to see. For all the bashing of golf in the Olympics, well it meant a lot to the players who were there. Finishing fourth in the Olympic golf tournament sucked just as much as fourth place does in every other sport at the Olympics. No medal.
   Can’t help but wonder if McIlroy tuned in at all while checking out the “usual sports” he watches when the Olympics come around every four years. Maybe he’ll even be an Olympian some day.

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