Date: August 17, 2016
Author: Mark Hayes

Olympic golf: count me in

Olympic golf’s critical moment will come not when Lydia Ko, Lexi Thompson and Minjee Lee (examples only!!!) lock horns in a three-way playoff on Saturday night.

It will come next year when the IOC votes on the sport’s immediate future as part of the Games family past its existing tenure of Tokyo 2020.

But here’s the rub, in one quick tweet from none other than Sergio Garcia.

“Whoever said Olympic golf didn’t mean anything must’ve been on drugs cause (sic) this is absolutely amazing!! Coming to Rio, my best decision ever!” the popular Spaniard told the Twitterverse.

This from a man who was never in realistic contention as Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson fought out an epic duel and our own Marcus Fraser was overtaken for bronze late on the final day by Matt Kuchar’s stirring closing run.

The knock on golf being Olympics-worthy was that it’s not the pinnacle of the sport.

And if I’m being honest, that’s pretty much the view I’d held as a golf fan and Olympic-phile.

But that all changed for me in a few pulsating days, admittedly super-charged by Fraser’s stunning run to medal contention.

I read with great interest the passion generated among the Australian camp by enthusiastic team leader Ian Baker-Finch; that Fraser and Scott Hend were getting swept up in the concept of pulling on the green and gold and even down to the pooling of information as the tight-knit bunch (including caddies and other Aussie officials) pored over a new golf course that was, as it turned out, an absolute pearler.

But then a marvellous thing happened as the week transpired.

With the IOC watching intently after a string of big-name withdrawals for various well-documented reasons, there had been a distinct fear nobody would be interested in the men’s tournament.

But fans flocked, big time. And, importantly, given the number of novice mistakes made in the gallery, it was obvious that many were first-timers – one of the criteria the IOC will consider.

Contenders were found from around the globe. Many from Europe had their moments; Graham DeLaet gave Canada a run early; Danny Lee and the Aussie boys had Oceania buzzing; Kiradech Aphibarnrat charged into the mix, as did Byeong Hun An and C.T. Pan from Asia; while Emiliano Grillo Fabian Gomez had South American pulses racing. Another box ticked.

And then the kicker.

The tension was high, the golf was glorious and ALL the competitors were humming about the surprise of how much it meant as they did battle.

The American contingent was of sufficient quality – and celebrity, perhaps – that their presence on the leaderboard kept alive the key market for television.

Bubba Watson heaped praise on the Olympic golf concept, as did Rickie Fowler despite his inconsistent week on the course.

But then came Kuchar’s late surge into contention and a series of quotes that made it hit home to, sadly, the game’s most important market, the United States.

“I wish I could bottle this and do it all the time,” Kuchar said after he matched Fraser’s course record 63 to snare bronze. “When that (eagle) putt on No.10 went in, I thought, 'I’ve got a chance here’. My heart started pounding. What a great experience.

“I was amazed by the nerves. I can assure I've never been so excited to finish top three in my life. The pride is busting out of my chest.

“I realise it's third, but I've never felt this sort of pride busting out of my chest before.”

And so to the closing drama as Stenson – the man who’d weeks earlier played one of the great rounds in golfing history to win the Open Championship – put on the record his desire to have his final career resume read major and Olympic champion.

He had another rousing battle, only to watch Rose hold his nerve one hole longer with a winning birdie on the final hole.

But the Englishman, normally very moderate in his emotions, put the icing on the cake.

A roar of victory was not unexpected. But the volume, passion and instant clutching of the lion Team Great Britain logo on his shirt were a far bigger indicator of its meaning.

And of those who opted out, one last piece of the puzzle fell into place as world No.3 and pin-up American Jordan Spieth immediately congratulated his medal-winning peers from afar.

“Will be a goal represent (the USA) in 2020,” Spieth tweeted.

The women involved this week have been nothing but effusive about the sport’s position in the Games from the start.

That message might have taken a while to sink into the men’s locker-room.

But it got there. Eventually.

I’m not saying an Olympic gold medal will trump a green jacket or Claret Jug any time soon.

But watching the passion of all involved to pull on country colours was infectious.

The format – and probably scheduling of other events around it – obviously needs a major rethink to enhance that team aspect. But the building blocks are there. Clearly.

How it plays out in the long term – and whether or not the gold medal can be perceived as a fifth (or sixth in the women’s case) major – will be debated at length.

What shouldn’t be in doubt is that it deserves another crack in 2024 and beyond so that the entire sport can unite behind the cause.

You could witness the love Fraser had for the “greatest week of my golfing life” – and also the exposure it gave him as he watched his social media following explode as he tried to respond individually to literally thousands of well-wishers as he finished fifth.

“I’m a proud Australian! I gave it everything I had this week all for our great flag. Thank you (all) for an amazing week,” he beamed.

As did Hend, who said the week went “way too fast”.

“I can’t remember the last time I’ve felt like a team member like this week. Awesome being a part of it,” Hend said.

It obviously won them over.

It won me over. I’m a convert.

How about you?