Englishman hails golf’s return to the Games after 112-year absence and says it’s ‘right up there with anything I’ve achieved’
By Michael McEwan
After all the build-up, the controversy, the complaints, the high-profile withdrawals and the cynicism, golf’s much vaunted return to the Olympic Games proved to be a huge success - particularly for Team GB’s Justin Rose.
The 36-year-old held off Open champion HenrikStenson and American ace Matt Kuchar to become the first Olympic golf gold medallist since Canada’s George Lyon in 1904.
Rose has had plenty of highlights since turning professional following that memorable Open Championship performance at Royal Birkdale in 1998. He has claimed multiple titles around the world, won the European Tour Order of Merit, played a starring role in victorious Ryder Cup teams and, of course, ended England’s 17-year winless drought in the majors when he won the US Open.
However, anybody who was in any doubt as to how much Olympic gold meant to him need only look to his exuberant reaction when he holed the winning putt in Rio and listen to the effusive manner in which he talked about the victory afterwards.
“It’s a unique and iconic thing, Olympic gold,” said Rose on his return to the UK. “It’s definitely an iconic piece of hardware. It does capture a lot of people’s imagination and they are excited to see it and feel it and hold it. Growing up, it’s not something we associated with our sport but I think it’s been a huge opportunity for us to experience what it is like to be an Olympian and Olympic champion and to see a gold medal.”
Naturally, many people have questioned where a gold medal ranks in terms of an achievement for golfers. Indeed, many who opposed to golf’s reintroduction to the Games did so on the grounds that a gold medal isn’t the pinnacle of the sport. For Rose, it sits somewhere between the majors and the Ryder Cup.
“You have to say it’s somewhere in between the two, because it was very patriotic,” he said. “You had Union Jack flags flying. You had a huge Swedish contingent out there cheering on their man. It was just a unique tournament. For me it’s right up there with anything I’ve achieved in the game of golf.”
Rose also believes that the Olympics can only be a good thing for the game, particularly in terms of wider global exposure. Olympic golf was broadcast on the Golf Channel and NBC in the United States and also on NBC and, according to most reports, viewing numbers were impressive, more than any analyst had predicted. In Sweden, meanwhile, more than twenty times as many people watched HenrikStenson grab a silver medal than a Claret Jug.
“I think the Olympic gold medal has reached a much wider audience,” added Rose. “I feel the attention that it receives has been huge outside of the game of golf. I think that it sort of resonated with a lot more people.”
That’s all well and good - but why?
“I think it’s because it’s an Olympic sport,” he continued. “I watch sports that I wouldn’t ordinarily watch because they are Olympic sports, and so that’s going to be the same for golf. People are going to watch golf that don’t ordinarily watch golf because it’s an Olympic sport, which can only be good for our game.
“I think that was one of the reasons why we were all excited in the hope that it could attract some growth and some more eyes on our sport, and I think that that’s been the case.
“I also think the fact that it came down to an exciting showdown with myself and Henrik, in a very relatable way, where it came down to a couple of chips and putts on the last hole. No matter how much you know golf or don’t know golf, you can kind of relate to that ‘final hole’ sort of situation. So from that point of view, I was very fortunate to be a part of it and it went in my favour. But I think it was a good first showcase for golf. Just the whole atmosphere around the golf in Rio was very positive.”
As for the players who skipped the event, their fears over health and security proved to be unfounded. Four-time major winner Rory McIlroy, one of the most high-profile of the abstainers, even admitted that he was glad to be somewhat proven wrong’ over his decision to stay away.
“There was more people at the golf events than there was at the athletics. It was good to see,” said the Northern Irishman, who was joined on the sidelines by the likes of Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Dustin Johnson and Adam Scott.
Rose, however, believes that many of them will have seen the success of the Rio event and make qualifying for their respective countries for the Tokyo Games in 2020 a much higher priority.
“Obviously, everybody who didn’t go is a world-class player and I think we all know who we are talking about,” he said. “They are all competitive guys and they all want a piece of the action. I’m pretty sure that they are going to probably want to have a good run at it in 2020.
“I saw it as an opportunity and, hopefully, it can move forward from here. I don’t think it could have gone better from that point of view. I think it was fantastic that there were six medalists in golf [South Korea’s Inbee Park won the women’s event, with New Zealand’s Lydia Ko taking silver and ShanshanFeng of China claiming bronze] and they were all from different countries, which I think is also great for the game.
“Going forward to 2020, I hope that the reaction will be a lot more positive. With Rio, obviously there were some other factors involved in guys’ decision-making. Hopefully, that will be a bit of a smoother process in Tokyo.”
One thing that Rose doesn’t believe contributed to his peers’ decision to stay away was the absence of prize money at the Olympics. “It cost a lot to go down there and get it done but that’s not what it’s about,” he said. “It’s about competing for your country. It’s about being part of something incredible.
“There are plenty of opportunities to play for a lot of money out here on tour, so, certainly from my point of view, that was never part of the decision-making process.”