RIO DE JANEIRO — Men’s golf gets four days to make up for four months of negative chatter about whether it even belongs in the Olympics.
Not even a dreary sky with occasional rain could dampen the enthusiasm Wednesday on the final day of practice at Olympic Golf Course.
“No matter what happens this week, it’s the greatest week of my life,” two-time major champion Martin Kaymer said.
Bubba Watson was buzzing about watching Michael Phelps win the 200-meter butterfly the night before. British Open champion Henrik Stenson, an imposing figure in golf, felt small next to some of the other athletes in the gym at the Olympic Village.
“If you want to get motivated, that’s definitely a place to be,” he said. “There’s a lot of athletes from different sports in there, and I didn’t try and go for some dead lifts of 80, 90 kilos when there was a guy holding up 180 kilos on both arms.”
The biggest thrill for so many has been hanging around so many Olympians.
Now it’s their turn. Adilson da Silva of Brazil was chosen to hit the opening tee shot Thursday morning.
Not since 1904 in St. Louis has golf been part of the Olympic program, with George Lyon of Canada winning the gold medal. Every major golf organization lobbied for its return, pledging support from the best players in the world. And that’s what golf had until four months ago, when the deadline began approaching and players began bailing out for reasons ranging from the Zika virus to safety concerns to other priorities.
Most damaging was losing the top four players in the world — Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy. The Rio Games effectively are an audition before the International Olympic Committee votes next year on whether golf should stay beyond 2020.
“It’s certainly not helpful, but now we are looking forward and concentrating on those players who are here,” International Golf Federation President Peter Dawson said.
The best golf can do now is put on a memorable show.
The course, designed by American architect Gil Hanse specifically for the Rio Games, features wide fairways and no rough to account for wind that can get up to about 40 mph, and already has this week. It also offers a three-hole finish that could leave the outcome in doubt until the last hole.
Does it need a big name winning the gold medal, like Stenson or Kaymer or Watson? A surprise winner from a developing golf nation like Li Haotong of China or Kiradech Aphibarnrat of Thailand? A playoff like the way Rickie Fowler won The Players Championship? A dominant performance like Stenson at Royal Troon?
“If you genuinely want the best thing that’s going to happen, you’re going to have four or five players in with a chance of winning with three or four holes to go … and Padraig Harrington finishing eagle-birdie-eagle to win it outright,” Harrington said.
One unknown remains the size of the gallery. Golf is used to being the biggest show when it comes to down, especially the majors. Now it is but one of 39 sports or disciplines, many of them with a much greater tradition in the Olympics. The IGF said about 58 percent of the tickets have been sold, with Sunday a sellout of 12,000.
The other mystery is golf itself. Not even the most dominant player of his era, Tiger Woods, could guarantee victories in any given week.
“I think I can give you a list of 10 to 15 guys who I think are going to find the medals, and that’s going to be among the strong players that are here, most likely,” Stenson said. “We’re a different sport. It not like some of the other sports where if you jump a certain distance or swim at a certain time, you can pretty much figure out who is going to win. Ours is a bit more down to the form for the week and on any given day. It’s a little trickier to find the golf and silver and bronze.”
For three days, this has looked and felt just like any other tournament except for players being in team uniforms (even though this is only 72 holes of individual stroke play for the medals). Still to be determined is how it feels with a gold medal — any medal — on the line.
“For me, I’ll approach it like any tournament,” Kaymer said. “But when Sunday comes, you will approach it differently, because whether you’re fourth or 20th, no one really cares. At the end of the day, you play for the top three or you play for the golden pineapple, which no one cares about.”