“The format is flawed.”
“Men and women should compete together.”
“Professionals who play for millions of dollars every week have no place at the Olympic Games.“
For three-and-a-half days everything that is wrong with golf at the Olympics was bandied about yet late on Sunday – to paraphrase Jeff Goldblum’s character in “Jurassic Park” – golf once again found a way.
At the start of play and indeed deep into the front nine it appeared to be little more than an 18-hole procession for the third-highest-ranked player in the field, Xander Schauffele, to fulfil his family’s own remarkable Olympic story. (Schauffele’s father Stefan was training to represent Germany in the decathlon at the 1988 Games in South Korea before a car crash in 1986 ended his Olympic dream.)
It is said of the most hyped golf tournament on the planet that “The Masters doesn’t start until the back nine on Sunday” yet at the Olympics that forgiving sense of patience was afforded by few until it too came to fruition in the most spectacular fashion.
Shortly after Rory Sabbatini – a South African-born resident of South Florida who married a Slovakian woman by the name of Martina Stofanikova and took up citizenship so that he could help promote the game in the homeland of his wife and stepson – birdied the last to post an Olympic record 10-under 61 and 17-under total, Schauffele stumbled.
A blocked tee shot that necessitated a penalty drop to get back into play resulted in a bogey at the par-5 14th and in the blink of an eye the American and Slovakian flags shared top spot on the leaderboard.
As Schauffele attempted to wrest back momentum the queue for the remaining Olympic medal swelled to bursting point.
The man with the most patriotic hairstyle at Kasumigaseki Country Club – our own Cameron Smith – used a final round of five-under 66 to raise the possibility of becoming golf’s bronzed Aussie until a bogey at the 72nd hole saw him fall one shot short.
After three days of waiting, suddenly every shot was laced with Olympic expectation. After days of indifference from a distance, Olympic golf was suddenly setting social media alight.
World No.3 Collin Morikawa and Chinese Taipei’s CT Pan used rounds of eight-under 63 to post 15-under alongside Chilean Mito Pereira; local hero Hideki Matsuyama was fighting some short-putt slip-ups and a hatless Rory McIlroy transformed from his previous ambivalence into someone who looked as though an Olympic medal was his life’s sole purpose.
A birdie from the bunker at the front of the short 17th and nerve-wracking up-and-down at the 72nd hole secured gold for Schauffele and Team USA with Sabbatini making good on his one-man Slovakian golf PR campaign with his adopted nation’s second silver medal of the Games.
That left seven players representing seven nations at 15-under par to fight it out for the bronze medal, three Major champions, an English veteran and men from Chile, Colombia and Chinese Taipei.
The greatest number of players in one playoff on the PGA Tour is six and after one extra hole we were down to five, Matsuyama and Paul Casey eliminated at the par-4 18th.
Five pars at the par-3 10th were followed by a Sebastian Munoz bogey, a wicked Pereira horseshoe and a McIlroy lip-out at the par-4 11th, leaving the reigning Open champion and Pan to duel for the bronze.
Ranked 208th in the world and 17th entering the final round, Pan made an up-and-down from front-left of the green as Morikawa’s buried lie in the face made a sand save unlikely to complete a day of Olympic golf that won’t soon be forgotten.
The format and the players who take part will be an ongoing debate but perhaps, just perhaps, the least popular opinion is instead the most accurate: Olympic golf is perfect just the way it is.