Luke DeCock

First day of Olympic golf has mini-tour feel – DeCock

Rickie Fowler of the United States plays his shot from the 16th tee during the first round of men's golf on Day 6 of the Rio 2016 Olympics at the Olympic Golf Course on August 12, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Rickie Fowler of the United States plays his shot from the 16th tee during the first round of men's golf on Day 6 of the Rio 2016 Olympics at the Olympic Golf Course on August 12, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Getty Images

Welcome to the Brazil Bradesco Open at the TPC of Barra da Tijuca, where opening-round leader Marcus Fraser fought high winds to post a … yawn.

About all golf’s not-quite triumphant return to the Olympics could offer after a century away was a largely anonymous leaderboard and the general enthusiasm of the players who actually showed up for the event, now that it has finally arrived.

The players liked the slapped-together links course, lined with sod imported from Texas. There were sparse but enthusiastic fans in the grandstands and fairways, about as many as you’d expect for the first round of a Web.com event in the United States. The fact that the mere existence of golf as an Olympic event forced many countries to form golf federations should help grow the game worldwide.

There’s still no question the International Golf Association missed the boat by making it a standard, 72-hole stroke-play event, like every other event week-in, week-out on the PGA Tour. There’s not much Olympian about it from tee to green, at least not yet.

“It’s a little too early. It’s Thursday,” American golfer Patrick Reed said. “Come Saturday and Sunday when it comes down later in the day, the crowds get a little more I would say larger and electrifying, then it’ll start feeling more like the Olympics. But today was tough. Everyone’s head was down focusing on trying to figure out the wind.”

To their credit, the four Americans – Rickie Fowler, Matt Kuchar, Reed and Bubba Watson – on the U.S. team have embraced the Olympic experience and are staying in the village with the other American athletes. But they’re not really a team. They’re more of a gathering.

“I looked up and saw Kuchar make a putt and I’m like, ‘Yes!’ then, ‘No, wait, he’s kind of beating me,’ ” Watson said. “We’re wearing the same gear, so we’re pulling for each other, but not really.”

The IOC requires team and individual events to be conducted separately, which is why everyone does their routines multiple times in gymnastics and there’s no team medal in swimming. Without the ability to conduct an NCAA-style championship – where individual scores contribute to team scores over four days of stroke and two days of match play – there just isn’t time in the middle of a busy PGA Tour schedule to do both.

There are lots of other opportunities or ways to possibly make it more interesting or fun. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.

U.S. Olympic golfer Matt Kuchar

With golf guaranteed to be in the 2020 games and on the bubble for 2024 and beyond, it’s worth revisiting the format, because at the moment there’s very little to distinguish Olympic golf from any other tournament on any other tour, and that’s not making the most of this opportunity. This is what the players told the IGF they wanted, but when so many back out, what’s the point of taking their opinions into account?

There are so many ways to do it that would be so much more interesting, almost all as a team format. What about 32 two-player teams competing over five days? What about a co-ed component? What about two days of group play with four 9-hole matches followed by an elimination bracket? All it takes is a little imagination. If the best players are going to stay home anyway, there’s nothing to lose.

“It’ll be interesting to see what happens four years from now, if they do tweak it,” said Kuchar, who at one point was under the impression there was a team medal in Rio. “Certainly this being the first time, four rounds of stroke play is the standard to what we do in golf. There are lots of other opportunities or ways to possibly make it more interesting or fun. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.”

Australia’s Fraser leads the way after Thursday, with Canada’s Graham DeLaet (with former Hurricanes forward Ray Whitney as his caddie) the closest behind. If there was a team competition, the United States would be in trouble, with only Kuchar under par. There isn’t, which leaves plenty of time for both the Americans and Olympic golf to get things going.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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