The actual golf at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics could have been golf at nearly any number of PGA Tour stops. It was good golf played by solid golfers on a fine golf course that resulted in a fun golf ending. That is a sentence that could have been written 25 times over the last year. And the back nine of the event on Sunday was as wacky (Xander Schauffele's closing kick) and bizarre (the seven-way playoff for third!) and, yes, enjoyable (that final shot from Schauffele!) as any tournament in 2021.
There were transgressions. It is extraordinarily difficult for me to watch Golf Twitter's favorite adopted son, Rory Sabbatini, shoot a 61 on a Sunday at a big-time event and find that type of setup or course to be anywhere near akin to what we find at major championships. Perhaps it is unfair to compare golf at the Olympics to majors, but that is the barometer. Instead, this golf, the style and the play, felt more like a Sunday at the Travelers Championship.
This is fine, though. The Travelers Championship is a great event, one many of us look forward to annually. Not everything has to be a war against the very earth this sport is played on like the major championships so often are. The weather -- wet and calm -- did not help matters at Kasumigaseki Country Club.
There are ways the entire thing could be better, but we don't need to belabor a point that has been played on repeat over the last few weeks. Hopefully those variations will be implemented at some point over the next decade because they would enhance both the novelty and the allure of the entire event.
However, there are two compelling features of golf at the Olympics that I may have missed, possibly even ignored. The first is that winning a medal for countries like Thailand (one total in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics), Mexico (3 total), Finland (1) or Chile (0) is a really, really big deal. One of the seven golfers who made it into a playoff for the bronze medal, Mito Pereira of Chile, addressed this.
"Well I think it's been growing a lot since Joaquin [Niemann] won on the PGA Tour, top-25 in the world, he's a really good player," said Pereira. "I think people in Chile are trying to get more involved in golf. It's a small country for golf, it's not very popular and I hope this helps and try to grow the game a little bit more and be more accessible for everybody."
"Just I feel all the support from Chile," he said at the end of his week. "I mean there's a lot of people supporting us week to week, but this week it was, like, huge. So just wanted to thank them and try to carry it on for the next weeks."
That's meaningful in a way I'm not sure I can appreciate here in the United States where golf is a staple and its stars are stalwarts of the sports culture. So in some ways, the lesser field (with more countries represented) at the Olympics is a feature, not a bug, of the event. The winner is not as celebrated as he would be at a major, but the very possibility of a golfer from a smaller country (such as Slovakia!) even medaling is a huge deal.
The other part got put on repeat by two of the game's biggest stars. It became clear that golf at the Olympics was more about the latter part of that phrase than the former. A course that bequeaths 61s to men not accustomed to shooting them is not the stuff of which major championship dreams are made, but that part seemed secondary throughout. For one week, being an Olympian completely overshadowed being a golfer.
"It's so different," said Justin Thomas, who did not finish close to the podium. "It was cooler than I thought it was. I'm more proud of being here than I thought I would be. I thought I would be proud, but the first, like, day or two I immediately found out that this is, like, the coolest thing I've ever been a part of. … So I think when you don't have the ability to dream something, when you get here it's, it can sometimes just take you by surprise and this definitely exceeded that."
"I made some comments before that were probably uneducated and impulsive," added Rory McIlroy, who lost in that playoff for bronze. "But coming here experiencing it, seeing, feeling everything that goes on, not just Olympic golf but just the Olympics in general, that sort of Olympic spirit's definitely bitten me and I'm excited how this week's turned out and excited for the future."
He went on.
"I think that's the thing that maybe not being in the Olympics last time is that I didn't understand," added McIlroy. "When your sport is in the Olympics, you're all a part of something that's a bit bigger than yourself [and] your sport and that's a great thing."
It is a great thing, and it's also a very different thing. We don't have a category for golf at the Olympics. It's not played at the level of the four majors, and it doesn't have the fanfare of the Ryder Cup (or maybe even the Presidents Cup). For one week, it is folded in with everything else and lost in the wave of swimming, gymnastics and track and field.
Ironically, this makes golf at the Olympics uniquely stand alone within this sport. Nearly every other golf tournament that we watch, follow and cover is about the golf. This one much less so. That's a fun thing to be a part of for a week and a good reminder every four years that this world, which we obsess over and dissect, is not the only world that exists.