A throwaway comment by Rory McIlroy after he missed out on a bronze medal was worth its weight in gold as golf’s much talked-about acceptance in the Olympic Games was reinforced following two glorious weeks at Tokyo 2020.

“I’ve been saying all day I never tried so hard in my life to finish third,” said the forlorn Irishman after he bowed out of a riveting seven-man playoff for third place in the men’s competition at Kasumigaseki Country Club.

As one of the world’s leading golf stars and more recently, the de-facto voice of reason for matters surrounding the game, McIlroy’s revelation was just the endorsement needed by the International Golf Federation to show that golf was here to stay in the Olympic programme and it does matter to the game’s elite. 

More importantly, Tokyo 2020 also underscored Olympic golf’s role in growing the sport globally as exemplified by Aditi Ashok’s stunning performance in the women’s competition, which made an entire nation of India sit up and take notice of the game. 

Success in professional sports is often measured by victories and trophies – nobody remembers the guy who finished second, third or fifth – but the fact that McIlroy, a former World No.1 and 19-time PGA TOUR winner, and six others fought like lions so desperate to win third place was testimony of the Olympic ideals.

When the royal and ancient sport was reintroduced in Rio 2016 following a 112-year lapse, the 32-year-old McIlroy was amongst the many skeptics of the game’s return. But he soon became an Olympic convert after his time in Tokyo, humbled to be proven wrong just as how he had changed his tune about the Ryder Cup which he initially termed as an “exhibition”.

“I made some comments before that were probably uneducated and impulsive, but coming here, experiencing it, seeing, feeling everything that goes on, not just Olympic golf but just the Olympics in general, that sort of Olympic spirit’s definitely bitten me and I’m excited how this week’s turned out and excited for the future. It makes me even more determined going to Paris (in 2024). I’m trying to go at least one better but hopefully three better,” said McIlroy.

Other stars who featured in Tokyo 2020 left with lifelong memories and renewed determination to return to Paris. “It’s so different. It was cooler than I thought it was,” said Justin Thomas, the 2017 FedExCup champion. “I’m more proud of being here than I thought I would be.”

Collin Morikawa, who also featured in the bronze medal playoff, added: “I think what today brought out of me was more than just playing for myself, I was playing for our country and I was able to fight and dig deep. To anyone that has second thoughts or doubts about whether golf should be in the Olympics or whether they should represent their country, they absolutely should because the Olympics reaches a wider audience than anything, a lot of tournaments that we play. We’re doing our part putting golf on the world stage.”

For Xander Schauffele, his golden moment at the historic Kasumigaseki’s East course meant the world to him, and also to his father, Stefan who was an Olympic decathlete hopeful before a car accident caused by a drunken driver dashed his dreams. Hailing from a multi-cultural family whose heritage intertwines across the globe – his father is French-German, his mother Ping-Yi was born in Chinese Taipei and grew up in Japan – Xander will now be the perfect poster boy to promote Olympic golf in years to come. His golden hour was aptly shared with Stefan, who insisted on sleeping with the gold medal on the first night of their famous win. 

“He put all his eggs in one basket for quite some time … to compete as a decathlete in the Olympics,” Xander said of his father and only coach. “Life came at him fast, it was swiped away from him, but he saw potential in me … and so he put all his eggs in my basket. For this to come full circle, I just feel very fortunate and really happy to share this with him. I knew he was going to be there crying, luckily he had shades on, but it was really cool.”

No one could have predicted the Slovakian national flag being hoisted during the medal ceremony but a grizzled Rory Sabbatini, who changed his nationality from South African to Slovakian in 2018, made sure golf was well on the radar in his adopted country following a spectacular silver medal effort courtesy of a final round 61. Chinese Taipei’s C.T. Pan won the bronze after four extra holes.

“South Africa has so many golfers to represent them, but Slovakia doesn’t have anybody. You got so many different other sports that are bigger. So we looked at it as a way to try and create some interest. For me to be here is very fortuitous. It’s been such a prideful moment to represent Slovakia and to see the flag raised,” said the 45-year-old, whose wife-cum-caddie is Slovakian and brother-in-law the head of the Slovakia Golf Federation.

Australia’s Cameron Smith and Marc Leishman came up short in their medal hunt, with Smith finishing one stroke outside the bronze medal playoff and Leishman coming in T51. The duo intend to get back to Paris 2024 and put on the green and gold again after soaking in the experience in what was their Olympic debuts.

“I mean, this is only once every four years. In my life time, there’s only going to be probably another, not too many gold medallists. As a golfer, I think we didn’t grow up thinking we would have a chance to win a medal, so I think as time goes on, this is going to get bigger and bigger and bigger. But this is a big deal. I mean, I think it would be, if it wasn’t equal to a Major, it would be a very, very, very close second,” said Leishman.

Smith was so fired up in representing Australia that he shaved “AUS” by the side of his head. He said: “I mean, it’s the Olympics. It doesn’t happen too often. I thought I would give Australia a shoutout on the side of the melon. I mean, I thought about it for a few weeks beforehand and then I just said stuff it, I’m going to do it, and I think it’s been received pretty good. My mom called me up. She was laughing. She was like, oh, you were just on the news. Called me all sorts of names, but she loved it and she loves that it brings a lot of, I guess, joy to, it puts a smile on everyone’s faces.”

Hannah Green, who featured in the women’s competition with Minjee Lee, finished tied fifth after challenging for a podium finish and vowed to make a quick return to Paris 2024. “Yeah, I’m definitely striving to make Paris. I didn’t really think too much of it but I guess it is only a few years away, so hopefully I can keep continuing to play well on the LPGA and do my job that way,” said said.

“I was trying to win a gold medal and my first couple hours on the golf course things weren’t going well and I was scrambling really hard. So I think to be even in contention come the last couple holes really proud of myself for how I hung in there and didn’t get too down on myself and tried to think of the bigger picture I guess and being so lucky that we even have an Olympics to compete in.”

American Nelly Korda, Japan’s Mone Inami and Lydia Ko of New Zealand were the medallists in the women’s golf competition which proved equally dramatic but it was Aditi Ashok, with her mother Maheshwari as caddie, who moved the needle for women’s golf with an eye-catching fourth-place finish. After saying it “sucks” to finish one stroke outside the medals, India’s leading two politicians, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Ram Nath Kovind, and cricket legend, Sachin Tendulkar all tweeted messages of support and congratulations.

With their combined followers on Twitter being at over 120 million, it is safe to conclude the gospel of golf was successfully spread across this cricket-mad nation. Hopefully like McIlroy, some will be converted to Olympic golf fanatics.

Note: Chuah Choo Chiang is senior director, marketing and communications, APAC for the PGA TOUR and is based in Kuala Lumpur.

[IMAGES: International Golf Federation]