The Olympic golf competition gets underway on Thursday in Tokyo, that is, the good Lord willing and Delta variant don’t spread.
With no spectators, it might feel a little nostalgic, as there were no galleries for most of the 2020 golf season. Lack of attendance outside the lines translated into a lack of energy inside. When you begin to miss “Get in the hole!” you know things aren’t right.
Moreover, a few players will be missing, as a number of qualifiers bowed out, based on personal preferences or COVID considerations. Among those was South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen, who might have reconsidered. After all, second place in the Olympics gets you a medal.
The most recent casualties to the competition roster were U.S. Open winner and world No. 1 Jon Rahm, who was batting for Spain, and No. 4 ranked Bryson DeChambeau, who was to swing the lumber for the U.S.
Both players recently tested positive for the virus and had to withdraw. Apparently, in a post-test conference, DeChambeau blamed his failed test on the swab ... kidding, just kidding.
Attrition aside, six of the top 15 in the OWGR are in Tokyo, which makes this akin to a mid-level PGA Tour stop. In keeping with the sentiment, the competition is an individual 72 hole stroke play affair, which makes it like just about every other week on the golf calendar.
And frankly, with golf’s genuinely patriotic, genuinely team-oriented exhibition - the Ryder Cup - just around the corner, the Conflict at Kasumigaseki has a bit more of a Dollar Store feel to it.
Still, this is the Olympics and things are about to heat up. Check that, things are already heated up. The sweltering temperatures and humidity in Tokyo the first few days put a premium on ice packs and medical timeouts. So, no doubt, the caddies are stoked about what lies ahead.
That said, we discovered something important four years ago, when cynicism and sniping ran rampant. For all the imperfections, for all the indifferent notions, Olympic golf can still be emotional and captivating. Colors are flying, medals are awarded and the potential for drama is real. So as they put the ball in the oppressive Tokyo air, let’s take a look at five storylines to follow on the men’s side:
The 29-year old Matsuyama became the first Japanese player to win the Masters earlier this year. In golf-crazy Japan, that makes him a legend in his own time. The spotlight is on and the gold-medal expectations will be enormous.
With all the distractions and attention, a “home field” environment is hardly ever advantageous for high profile players - just ask Rory McIlroy about a British Open in Ireland.
In this instance, Matsuyama has history on the property, winning the Asian Amateur at Kasumigaseki Country Club in 2010. But that was before an extensive Tom Fazio update changed the personality of the course considerably. Matsuyama doesn’t have a top-15 since Augusta, and he hasn’t played since testing positive for COVID at the Rocket Mortgage earlier this month.
But hey, no worries. Go get ‘em kid!
The South Koreans
If you’re trying to handicap this shootin’ match, motivation would be something to consider. Sure, everybody is motivated, playing for national pride, and all that jazz.
But South Koreans Sungjae Im (23 years old) and Si Wood Kim (26) have a bit more skin in the game - to be more specific, their own skin. In South Korea, men between the ages of 18 and 28 are required to spend a minimum of 1 ½ years in military service. And guess what Im and Kim haven’t done yet? Bingo!
But … wait for it … the military requirement gets waived if you win an Olympic medal. Thus, both Im and Kim skipped the recent British Open to focus on preparing for this week. Now, s’true, Im (No. 27) and Kim (No. 55) are not the most highly ranked players in the field. But you have to believe they are highly motivated.
The Golf Course
Unlike 2016, when the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Golf Course Olympic was newly created for the event, the golf course in Tokyo has been around. Kasumigaseki opened in 1929, designed by C.H. Alison, who worked with noted architects like Alister MacKenzie and Harry Colt.
With this week in mind, Fazio arrived in 2016 to make over and modernize the East Course. The result is a testy 7,447 yards with more bunkering, more elevations and more contour in the greens. The feel of the course will be similar to Fazio’s work at Quail Hollow and Shadow Creek, demanding from tee to green.
The fairways are zoysia grass, which should favor good iron players and make it easier to spin the ball. The greens are bentgrass and, while they should be fast, they also should be relatively soft and receptive. The Japanese have left no stone unturned in getting the grounds ready, so the course promises to be both charming and challenging.
Before his WD, Rahm had to be considered the gold medal favorite. But if there is strength in numbers, you have to shine that light on the American contingent. As mentioned, six of the top 15 are in the tournament - and four are Americans.
With Collin Morikawa (3), Justin Thomas (No. 4), Xander Schauffele (No. 5) and Patrick Reed (No. 12) the red, white and loaded have four legitimate contenders for three different medals. Moreover, Morikawa won the recent British Open and two of the last seven majors. This golf course could favor the 24-year old’s game, which features remarkable ability with mid-to-long irons.
Then again, this is no cake walk. Ireland has Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry aboard. Great Britain features Paul Casey and Tommy Fleetwood. Canada touts Mackenzie Hughes and Corey Conners, while Australia has Marc Leishman and Cameron Smith. At the same time, individuals like Viktor Hovland (Norway) and Joaquin Niemann (Chile) are big threats.
Finally, you can’t ignore COVID or the impact it continues to make. The Japanese are said to have spent $15.4 billion to stage these Olympics. Before the pandemic outbreak, they planned on embracing some 40 million foreign visitors for the Games. But without spectators, the tourism dollars they hoped to reap will have to be realized in the long term, if realized at all.
Journalists on hand, which includes some 36 from the U.S., are escorted and supervised, not allowed to stray from their group or talk to residents. A rules violation results in deportation.
Then there are the athletes, who can see their medal hopes disappear in a positive-test instant. Only one day into the start last week, at least 12 athletes in Japan had tested positive, including U.S. beach volleyballer Taylor Crabb and U.S. gymnast Kara Eaker. In one case, a Dutch rower tested positive after competing.
Bottom line, no one knows when or where the next COVID crash might occur. It’s not exactly what Jim McKay had in mind with “the thrill of victory…and the agony of defeat.”
But it’s golf, it’s the Olympics, and it’s on TV. For most of us, that’s a win-win-win.
More Olympic Coverage on Morning Read
- 5 Reasons to Watch the Men's Competition This Week
- Is Olympic Golf a Big Deal? It's All in Eye of the Beholder
- Bryson DeChambeau Tests Positive for COVD-19, Out of Olympics
- Jon Rahm Out of Olympics After Positive COVID Test
- Don't Underestimate the Power of Olympics, or the Golfers Competing in Them