For the first time in over 100 years, golf is back in the Olympic games. But it hasn’t been without drama.
The world’s top four players — Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, and Rory McIlroy — all decided to pass on golf’s reintroduction into the Games, all initially citing health and family concerns for not wanting to make the trip. Other top players that qualified were more candid. Australia’s Adam Scott said he just didn’t care about golf in the Olympics. Rory McIlroy reversed fields a bit at his now-famous press conference at the Open Championship, saying he’d only be watching the events that ‘really matter’ in Rio and ignoring golf.
Yet despite so many of the game’s stars passing, the men’s golf event might still include some of the biggest stars in all of Rio. Few events can provide American fans the recognizable names they know from year-in, year-out competition like Rickie Fowler, Bubba Watson, Henrik Stenson, and Sergio Garcia. If nothing else, the men’s golf event still has the benefit of name recognition from competitors being on national TV every week that some other competitions aren’t afforded.
Those bigger names have already seemingly taken a liking to Rio — and the golf through the weekend might be set to redeem some of the criticism of the shotgun wedding between the IOC and the sport’s governing bodies that led to the summer’s chaotic schedule. The Gil Hanse-designed Olympic golf course has been praised by golf media members and players on the grounds — and Rio’s winter winds should make for a challenging set-up that will test players, and could make for a higher finishing score than any major championship this season. The weekend will also feature plenty of cast members that might play a supporting role in the drama — like the many Capybaras and other Brazilian wildlife that will roam the newly-built course.
While the four Americans (Fowler, Watson, Patrick Reed, Matt Kuchar) will be among the favorites to take home the gold, none are among the top two betting favorites in the event. With the windy track inspiring some memories of links golf, Sweden’s in-form Open Champion Henrik Stenson and Spain’s Sergio Garcia are holding top odds to take home the gold medal this Sunday.
60 players representing 34 countries over 6 continents will hit the links starting at 6:30 AM ET Thursday morning, seeking golf’s first olympic medals in over 100 years. The International Golf Federation, the new governing body built to oversee the event, built the field using the Official World Golf Rankings, as they stood the week prior to the Open Championship. The field was filled by descending through the OWGR rankings, filling the event with a maximum of two players per nation until the event total of 60 was reached. However, there was one exception to that rule. If a country’s top two players accepting the invitation resided inside the OWGR top 15, that nation was granted two additional spots in the field — if those two players were also inside the OWGR top 15. That exception only applied to the USA, and it’s how Patrick Reed and Matt Kuchar are in the event after Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson dropped out. For context, Phil Mickelson didn’t qualify despite ranking ahead of both Reed and Kuchar in the OWGR today — he was behind both and outside the top 15 the week before the Open.
The Golf Course
No competitor in the field, even Brazil’s Adilson da Silva, will have much of a knowledge advantage and the brand new Gil Hanse-designed Olympic track. Only 9 players have ever played the golf course in a competitive situation previously, and none of those individuals are in the field this week. Most players saw the course for the first time when arriving on the grounds.
But it’s a course that should remind those at home something of an Open Championship style of golf course. Despite those recollections, it takes its inspirations mostly from the Sandbelt-style courses in Australia — and fittingly so, it was built on a former sand quarry. There’s not a tree on the golf course, and there’s no true roughs anywhere at all. Once a ball runs through the fairway, they’ll find themselves in one of the areas of native grasses and sand that originally populated the area prior to the course’s construction.
Hanse opted for few mid-length par fours for the players that won’t let the track just be nothing but drivers and pitching wedges and short irons for the players. With a few short and drivable par-4s — and then longer ones that will require full irons, there’s plenty of room on the course for volatility. The finishing three holes will be the most memorable part of the track. A drivable par-4, a wedge par-3, and a long-but-reachable, risk-reward par-5 will create for a dramatic finishing stretch that should mean for lots of drama at the finish if things are close.
Marquee Tee Times
8:03 a.m. — Danny Willett, GBR; Matt Kuchar, USA; Haotong, Li; CHN
The Masters champ should be one of the favorites in the field given the layout of the course, and it would be a shock to see Kuchar outside the Top 10 in an event with little depth. Li’s only 21 — and won the European Tour’s China Open back in May.
8:14 a.m. — Bubba Watson, USA; Martin Kaymer, GER; Anirban Lahiri, IND
No group at the event will feature more major championship titles between Watson and Kaymer. Bubba’s taken a liking to his role as an Olympic athlete at least, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see the linksy, windy layout give him problems. Kaymer, however, is rounding back into form after swing makeover struggles since his last major win in 2014. He wouldn’t be a shock on the medal stand.
9:25 a.m. — Sergio Garcia, ESP; Patrick Reed, USA; Emiliano Grillo, ARG
Speaking of the medal stand, everyone I picked to take home a medal in these games will tee off at 9:25 on Thursday morning. Reed seems to thrive in US colors and Grillo’s had a nice summer on the PGA Tour and is the best South American player in the world today. But no player might be more cut out for the Olympics than Garcia. He’s always thrived in the Ryder Cup despite his lack of major titles, and a Gold Medal would be the perfectly flawed honor for golf’s most perfectly flawed character.
9:58 a.m. — Rickie Fowler, USA; Justin Rose, GBR; Jhonattan Vegas, VEN
There’s been no better ambassador for golf’s inclusion to the Games than Rickie Fowler and Justin Rose. The two have taken an immediate liking to the Olympic athlete role for the USA and Britain, assimilating into their squads in the village and being visible at events throughout the week. But both are having somewhat-down seasons on Tour. Jhonny Vegas is the only player in this group with a tournament win in the last 6 months, taking home the title at the PGA Tour’s Canadian Open the week prior to the PGA Championship.
10:09 a.m. — Henrik Stenson, SWE; Thongchai Jaidee, THA; Rafa Cabrera Bello, ESP
Despite all the above, don’t get confused: Henrik Stenson is the favorite this week. He followed up his Best Major Round Ever in his Open win by contending at the PGA. Even if Day, Johnson, Spieth, and McIlroy had made the trip — the Big Swede might still be the favorite for Gold.
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