Golf showed it can deliver Olympic drama in its return to the Games

Ryan Ballengee
The Olympic golf medalists show off their medals. (Getty Images)
The Olympic golf medalists show off their medals. (Getty Images)

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Going into the Rio Olympics, the story of golf’s return to the Olympic program seemed like it would be more about who didn’t show up, what didn’t happen and what could have been.

By the time Justin Rose tapped in for a gold-clinching birdie on the 72nd hole of the Olympic Golf Course, all of that had been forgotten. Men’s golf delivered.

Rose was engaged in a fascinating Sunday showdown with British Open winner Henrik Stenson, who had already made golf history earlier in the summer by becoming the first Swedish man to win a major championship. Stenson was 28-under combined in the Open and the PGA Championship, and, with a hole to play in Rio, was a combined 43 under par in those nearly 12 rounds. The 2013 U.S. Open champion Rose and Stenson, who both never publicly wavered in their intention to participate in Rio, made it a match-play situation early in the round, making it clear that no other competitor in the 60-player field would win the gold. They traded back and forth until the final hole, coming to the closing par-5 tied at 15 under par.

In the end, the clincher was an up-and-down for birdie that might inspire kids around the world to practice their short games, muttering to themselves, “…this is for the gold medal,” instead of for the green jacket, U.S. Open, Claret Jug, the Wanamaker or another important golf trophy. Expanding the opportunity for another generation to dream about golf is good for the sport.

Then there was the surge of American Matt Kuchar, who stormed the course on Sunday with an 8-under 63, tying the course record set on Day 1 by Marcus Fraser, to lock up a bronze medal.

“I’ve never been so happy with a third-place finish in my life!” Kuchar exclaimed afterward.

That’s coming from a guy in Kuchar who has done everything in golf, including winning The Players Championship, but win a major.

Bubba Watson, who said going into the week that he would make the unusual choice to lay up short on the par-5 finisher if it meant securing a medal, said afterward that it was the “best golf trip” he’s ever made.

Sergio Garcia fizzled out of medal contention early on Sunday, but he tweeted before the final round that the final result wouldn’t taint his Olympic takeaway.

It was hard not to be moved when 44-year-old Adilson da Silva, Brazil’s only representative in the tournament, pounded his chest with pride when he finished out in front of his home country crowd. It could well be the pinnacle of his golf career.

It’s true that the top four players in the world — Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy — were among 20 players to turn down an opportunity to play in the Olympics. So what? Plenty of PGA Tour events week-to-week don’t attract major-caliber fields, and the finishes are usually still exciting. With the first Olympic golf gold medal in 112 years hanging in the balance, it didn’t matter that the field strength was equivalent to a Texas Swing event (with nearly 100 fewer players). What mattered was that something unique and new in golf was on the line, and the guys fighting for it did so with the gusto of the majors they’ve already won. In those final holes, Zika, bad water, Brazilian crime, its failing economy, the golf format and all of the other stuff we complained about coming into the experience was irrelevant for the players, the sell-out crowd in attendance and the millions watching at home.

Not only do I hope that we get similar excitement starting next Wednesday with the women’s tournament, I expect it. Women’s golf has embraced the Olympic movement — whatever you think of its leaders — in a way that the men never did. They collectively saw the opportunity, and they’re poised to seize it with a field that rivals any of their five majors.

When the International Olympic Committee welcomed golf back to the Olympic program with its 2009 vote, the sport’s mission was to expand the reaches of the game and inspire others, particularly young people in developing sporting countries, to take up the game. With the performance Rose, Stenson, Kuchar and 57 others delivered throughout the week, it’s hard to imagine that mission will not be fulfilled.