Bubba Watson sat in the media center at the PGA Championship at Baltusrol two weeks ago and patiently answered questions. You never know what you might get from Bubba. The only guarantee is an honest answer.
Would you rather win an Olympic gold medal or the PGA Championship?
“I’ve won two major championships, so that’s an easy question,” quipped Watson. “I’ll take the gold. In fact, I’ll take any medal over the PGA Championship.”
Not all players felt that way leading up to the Summer Games in Rio. The top four players in the world all bypassed these Olympics for reasons that stemmed from the threat of the Zika virus to apprehension about safety and security in Rio.
By now, the absence of Jason Day (1), Dustin Johnson (2), Jordan Spieth (3) and Rory McIlroy (4) is old news. Throw in denials by Adam Scott (7), Branden Grace (10) and Hideki Matsuyama (19) and it was a bitter pill for the International Golf Federation to swallow. The IGF had worked hard to get golf back in the Olympics.
“Success will be measured on a number of levels,” Peter Dawson said this week. Dawson is president of the IGF.
“First that we have a compelling and exciting event, that the spectators, many of whom have never been exposed to golf, learn a little about golf, and we’ll never know if someone who watches will be inspired to play golf, but statistically some of that must happen,” he said.
As the players filtered into Rio in the past week, golf in the Olympics has really gained momentum and interest. Once they arrived it seemed that Zika and security were no longer in play. It reminded me of when I went to Sochi, Russia for the 2014 winter games. NBC Nightly News reported massive cellphone hacking and instructed visitors to not turn phones on in Sochi.
The Washington Post reported that Al Queda possessed handheld rocket launchers and they could be positioned in the mountains near the Sochi airport with the ability to shoot down incoming and outgoing planes.
I asked myself “Why am I going?” My family begged me not to make the trip. Once in Sochi, I never felt safer and thoroughly enjoyed the Olympic competition. It was American press propaganda at its finest, and I think Rio is a target too.
Jaime Diaz of Golf Digest is in Rio and had this to offer, “Rio is naturally beautiful, as the television shots of the iconic coastline drive home, but other than the stadiums and the arenas where the games are played, the infrastructure and amenities are inferior quality and workmanship.
“The five-story media center was built in a rush, with unfurnished rooms everywhere and unreliable plumbing,” Diaz said. “In our apartment, built specifically to house visitors to the Olympics, a mirror over the bathroom sink shattered in the middle of the night. It had been held up by four strips of double-edged tape.
“But, simply that golf is in the Olympics will be a success. And really, for one, but essential reason. The players who bought in and came to Rio have seen their expectations exceeded,” Diaz concluded.
At No. 5 in the world, Sweden’s Henrik Stenson is the highest-ranked player in the world to be in Rio. Stenson won the Open Championship at Troon last month and offered an interesting perspective.
“Believe me, I’m proud to be the Open champion. But around the world, not many know what that means. But, most people know what an Olympic gold medal is,” he said.
Joining Bubba in representing the U.S. are Rickie Fowler, Matt Kuchar and Patrick Reed. Fowler arrived early and joined Michael Phelps in leading the U.S. delegation at the opening ceremonies.
“I speak for myself, but I feel like I speak for the rest of the guys that if there’s a chance at winning the golf tournament or taking a risk possibly down the stretch to win the gold, I don’t think we are going to play it safe by any means,” Fowler said.
Watson was seated nearby and he interjected, “I’m going to lay up and go for bronze,” he said which prompted laughter in the room. “There’s no money changing hands. It’s all about having that medal around your neck and being on the podium,” he said.
The quality of the Olympic golf field is not up to normal PGA Tour standards, let alone a major championship. Sixty players will be represented by 34 countries.
However, there are some well-known players in the field besides the ones I’ve mentioned. Justin Rose, Martin Kaymer, Sergio Garcia, Padraig Harrington and Danny Willett are in Rio. And golf fans will get to some new faces like Marcus Fraser of Australia who jumped out to an early lead on Thursday.
At 45 years of age, Harrington has an interesting perspective. He took an active role back in 2009 to pitch golf to the IGF. Back then he was ranked seventh in the world; he is now 128th. Harrington is representing Ireland because McIlroy, Shane Lowry and Graeme McDowell all elected not to play.
“I absolutely thought I would be here,” Harrington said. “But that’s the nature of the sport, when you’re at the top of your game, you don’t believe it’s ever going to change. You think it’s going to last forever. Hindsight says that’s not true.”
It makes you wonder what some of the players who chose not to go to Rio are thinking this week … and four years from now.