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Olympic Golf Primer

After an interminable run-up, filled with construction delays, superstar pull-outs, and oversized rodents, the Olympic golf tournament is finally upon us. It’s a regular, four-round, no-cut, stroke-play event, which is just about the worst possible way to host an international competition (Golf Digest’s Shane Ryan figured out the best way to hold such an event two years ago). With only 46 world ranking points awarded to the winner (on par with the Canadian and Sony Opens), a relatively weak field has shown up in Rio. Despite a 104-year hiatus, Olympic Golf is flying way under the radar thanks to a Cold War feud in women’s swimming, Serena Williams ejecting early in both tennis competitions, and the dominant performances in U.S. women’s gymnastics. Yet, even with all these hurdles, I’m starting to feel the same way that Chris Chaney over at Wrong Fairway does…

With that said, let’s take a look at the Olympic Golf Course, situated a few miles down the coast from Copacabana Beach.

The Olympic Golf Course

I didn’t really know this technology existed, but apparently you can click and drag around within this YouTube video and get several 360-degree bird’s-eye views of the course. The ever-reliable Google Maps shows that the course is about a quarter-mile from the beach, separated by a stand of trees, a lagoon, and a barrier beach. But according to Golf Magazine’s Alan Shipnuck, you can’t really see any water from the course. With no trees, no rough, and coastal winds, Pinehurst-esque sandy waste areas await wayward shots, and the track seems poised to play like a links course.

Various previews and players have compared the track to Pinehurst, an Australian Sand Belt course like Royal Melbourne, or a windblown British links course. Australian Marcus Fraser pretty much wants to marry the thing, using words like “brilliant,” “love,” “lots of birdies,” and “great test.” That’s about all you can ask for out of a purpose-built golf course, although Fraser’s nationality may hint at the type of player who will fare best here.

Conversely, Aussie captain Ian Baker-Finch had several barbs to throw at the course, saying it’s overwatered and the grasses are too “grabby.” He also had one of the best all-time inside golf comments by saying that the course has been kept green for TV, but “would play much better as a blonde.” Hey, everyone has their type.

A few more tidbits on the track. It will play to a par 71 at 7,128 yards, which is short by today standards especially with the runout possible on these sandy fairways. Interestingly, there are no holes between 413 and 478 yards. So look for Johnny Miller to mix in a healthy dose of “half-par hole”s to go with his usual “fall line” and “trap draw” discussions.

This Olympic golf course was designed by Gil Hanse with fireworks in mind down the stretch, and really seems more suited for match play. The 15th is a shortish par four; a tick over 400 yards. The 16th is even more enticing: a gettable par four stretching just 303 yards. 17 is tinier than most female gymnasts – a 133-yard par 3 with a super wonky green shape and swooping, punishing bunkers. The 18th is a reachable par five at 571 yards, so the potential is there for players to go birdie-eagle-birdie-eagle to finish their round. If the IOC had unplugged their collective head from that buried lie in the sand, I can only imagine the drama that the last few holes here could have created in match play.

With the linksy feel necessitating creative shot shapes, and the lack of punishing rough or trees, I can see a European or Australian player contending strongly here cough-Sergio-cough cough.

Watchability of Groups, Ranked

Speaking of Sergio, the cream of the crop in terms of watchable TV pairings involves the mercurial Spaniard, along with Patrick Reed and Emiliano Grillo (who was finally reunited with his sticks a few days ago). Every international competition needs a Group of Death, and this certainly seems like Olympic golf’s version. Garcia always shows up for his country, and Grillo, the Argentinian miniature bomb threat, will look to represent his nearby nation on the heels of a strong performance in the PGA Championship a few weeks ago.

But for me, and many other Americans, this group (and potentially, this tournament) begins and ends with Patrick Reed. Although it’s a stroke play event, you can bet Captain America Chuck Norris Reed will attack this tournament as if he is already at Hazeltine, and will focus on breaking Sergio’s spirit in the run-up to the 2016 Ryder Cup.

So that’s the most watchable group. Rounding out the top 5 are the pairings below:

1. Patrick Reed, Sergio Garcia, Emiliano Grillo (11:25 A.M. Thursday, 9:25 A.M. Friday)

2. Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler, Jhonattan Vegas (11:58 A.M., 10:03 A.M.)

A major winner, a major disappointment (so far), and a smiley Venezuelan looking to keep one of Rio’s golf medals from leaving South America after taking down the Canadian Open a few weeks back.

3. Bubba Watson, Martin Kaymer, Anirban Lahiri (10:14 A.M., 12:09 P.M.)

Everyone here has a legit chance to medal. When Bubba’s focused and we’re not having to #PrayForTedScott (not a concern this week, as he tapped out and stayed home – which, with no purse what’s in it for the caddies who are participating?), his creativity is second to none. Kaymer because he won at Pinehurst, and Lahiri because he’s got the nation of India on his back (and on his mind), and wants to #growthegame in his native country.

4. Padraig Harrington, Matteo Manassero, Danny Lee (8:41 A.M., 10:36 A.M.)

A swan song of sorts for Paddy, the Olympics could give him the boost he needs to contend on the world stage for one of the last times. Manassero and Lee are both talented, with the Italian coming in hotter after finishing T3 at the Scottish Open.

5. Adilson da Silva, Graham DeLaet, Byeong-Hun An (8:30 A.M., 10:25 A.M.)

Sometimes the biggest names don’t generate the most watchable groups. Case in point, this motley crew, composed of a Brazilian, a Canadian, and a South Korean. I’ll be watching this group for An’s sweet wraparound motion, as well as to see if DeLaet can conquer his chipping demons from these tight greenside lies. And of course, the home team will receive tremendous, vocal fan support.

Others receiving votes:

  • Henrik Stenson, Rafa Cabrera-Bello, Thongchai Jaidee (12:09 P.M., 10:48 A.M.)
  • Danny Willett, Matt Kuchar, Haotong Li (10:03 A.M., 11:58 A.M.)
  • Kiradech Aphibarnrat, Gavin Green, Thomas Pieters (8:52 A.M., 10:47 A.M.)

Olympic Golf Medal Predictions

Now we come to the real question: Who will take home the first Olympic medal in 112 years? Though there’s only 60 players, and the gulf between the top and bottom of this field is wider than Michael Phelps’s shoulders, I think a relative unknown has a good chance to medal in this event. The players can talk all they want about how seriously they’re taking it, and how much winning a medal would mean to them, but I think most of the big-name players in Rio mainly agree with Rory McIlroy. That is, they got into the game to win major championships, not Olympic medals. In fact, Dutchman Joost Luiten threw his home country’s golf-watching populace under the bus before the competition, saying that him winning the Open Championship wouldn’t register in the Netherlands, but him taking home a medal would be a huge deal.

Just one person’s opinion, but I think this means more to someone from, say, India or Germany than it does to someone from the British Isles. And speaking of Germany, journeyman Alex Cejka is tied (with Sergio Garcia) for 3rd this season in par-3 performance. The Olympic golf course has five par 3s. Just saying…

About the only thing the IOC did right was to make this tournament a no-cut event, allowing for dramatic charges up the leaderboard in the final few days of competition (hopefully). Of course, this also raises the spectre of a patented Matt Kuchar backdoor top 10 performance. As far as hardware goes, it’s hard to pick against half-man, half bald eagle Patrick Reed, one of the only Americans of this generation who seems to actually relish the chance to compete against other countries rather than shrink from the moment. Gold: Patrick Reed

U.S. Ryder Cup player Patrick Reed reacts to the crowd on the ninth green during the 40th Ryder Cup singles matches at Gleneagles September 28, 2014. REUTERS/Eddie Keogh (BRITAIN - Tags: SPORT GOLF) ORG XMIT: GLF34
U.S. Ryder Cup player Patrick Reed reacts to the crowd on the ninth green during the Ryder Cup.

I’m conflicted on who I think will take the silver. Henrik Stenson has been as locked-in and robotic over the past month as I’ve ever seen, and when that Swedish engineering takes over, he’s hard to bet against. My only qualm is the openness and chaotic nature of both the course layout and the event itself.

My other pick for silver is Czech-born German Alex Cejka. He’s exactly the type of journeyman European that would give Jim Nantz human-interest story wet dreams. It’s a toss-up here, and I can’t even use my heart over my head because I’m pretty sure my ancestry is split down the middle between Germany and Sweden. I’ll literally flip a coin right now – heads is Cejka, tails is Stenson. Silver: Alex Cejka

Alex Cejka
Alex Cejka

I’m firmly convinced that Indian Anirban Lahiri will take the bronze medal. He’s got real game and, despite his poor form this year, he’s been plying his trade in the professional waters for some time now. Turned pro in ’07, is comfortable playing in far-flung locales (with multiple wins on the European and Asian Tours), and has competed in 11 majors (one-fifth of the Olympic field has never played in a major). Again, this would satisfy those “grow the game” narratives that we hear so much about in developing nations like India, and if Lahiri can distract himself from the weight of 1/7 of the world’s population sitting on his shoulders he should have a good look at the podium. Bronze: Anirban Lahiri

Lahiri
INDONESIA JAKARTA April 27 Anirban Lahiri of India in screams in delight with his caddie, Rajiv Sharma after winning his first title outside India action at the US$750,000 CIMB Niaga Indonesian Masters at the Royale Jakarta Golf Club in Jakarta.

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