No one knew what to expect from the return of golf to the Olympics after a 112-year absence. The decision by several of the world’s top players, including Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy, to bypass the opportunity partly out of fear of being exposed to the Zika virus cast some doubt over the competition in Rio de Janeiro.
But the stirring duel between gold medalist Justin Rose of Britain and Swedish silver medalist Henrik Stenson, who were tied going to the 72nd hole, elevated the sport to a much larger worldwide stage. The two arrived Tuesday at Bethpage Black for The Barclays opener of the FedExCup playoffs, and both had their medals with them and still were riding waves of adulation.
“The whole experience exceeded my expectations, and certainly winning has blown me away in terms of the reach that it has and the global audience that it has,” said Rose, who noted he always was excited about the chance to represent his country in the Olympics. “I’ve really noticed a difference from people’s reactions.
“I believe that it was the biggest TV audience golf has ever had in the U.K. People are going to watch golf that don’t ordinarily because it’s an Olympic sport, which can only be good for our game.”
One month before the Olympics, Stenson said he put “the icing on the cake” of a great career when he won the British Open in a thrilling mano-a-mano match with Phil Mickelson to become the first Swede to capture one of golf’s four major championships. But his Olympic performance drew an even wider audience in Sweden.
“That’s the beauty of the Olympics,” Stenson said. “I had a message on my Facebook from one guy who said, ‘I never watch golf. I was going to do something completely different this weekend, and I ended up watching golf for 10 hours.’ ”
The experience was exhausting for Rose and Stenson at the end of a crowded summer schedule in which the British Open, PGA Championship and Olympics were spread over a five-week span. Stenson didn’t touch a club between the time he left Rio and arrived on the practice tee Tuesday at Bethpage.
“I came out, practiced today, and luckily, the ball went up and it went forward,” Stenson joked.
Given their lack of rest, Rose and Stenson might be at a disadvantage this week, but they wouldn’t trade their Olympic experience. Rose said Olympic pressure was comparable to that in a major, but it had the patriotic element of a Ryder Cup.
“You had Union Jack flags flying,” Rose said. “You had a huge Swedish contingent out there cheering on their man.
“For me, it’s right up there with anything I’ve achieved in the game of golf, but it lives in a different world. I kind of see it at the top.”
That includes his 2011 U.S. Open title. Holding his left hand high and then raising his right to an equal level, Rose said, “If this is the major, this is the gold medal. All of my golf achievements sit in this (major) column, whereas this (gold medal) is something pretty unique and by itself.”
The next opportunity for Olympic gold in golf is four years down the road at Tokyo in 2020 in golf-mad Japan. You can believe all the top pros and the marketers who support them will set aside the date.
“Everybody who didn’t go is a world-class player, and I think we all know who we are talking about,” Rose said. “They all are competitive guys, and they all want a piece of the action. I’m pretty sure they are going to want to have a good run at it in 2020.”