It took 112 years for golf to find a new Olympic champion, but it was well worth the wait. Great Britain’s Justin Rose followed in the footsteps of the long-departed George Lyon of Canada when he climbed onto the podium to collect the Olympic gold medal in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday.
On a sun-drenched final day, in front of a sell-out crowd of 12,000 at Reserva de Marapendi Golf Course, Rose added the Olympic crown to his 2013 US Open title after a prolonged and exciting battle down the stretch with Sweden’s Henrik Stenson.
In the end, the packed grandstand which turned the 18th arena into a noisy sporting amphitheatre, watched spellbound as Rose got up-and-down from the side of the green for the birdie which sealed a worthy gold medal performance.
Stenson, who knew he needed to hole a 25-footer of his own to force a play-off, three-putted and the first Olympic golf competition since 1904 had a new champion.
Stenson, who emerged on top after a similarly epic shoot-out with Phil Mickelson in The Open at Royal Troon last night, had to accept second place this time and the silver medal was a deserving reward for his part in a wonderful spectacle which saw Matt Kuchar of the United States claim the bronze medal after a course record-equalling last round of 63.
Rose finished with four rounds in the sixties and his closing 67 secured the gold medal with a 16-under-par total of 268. Stenson took silver with a fourth-round 68 for 270 and Kuchar’s swashbuckling last day brought home the remaining medal on 271.
The leading three players completed the 72-hole test detached from the rest of the field, in which Belgium’s Thomas Pieters finished a highly creditable fourth after slicing 12 shots off his third-round 77 with a final day 65.
After holing out for a birdie four on the 18th, Rose punched the air in celebration and fell into the arms of his wife, Kate, before savouring the medal ceremony as the Olympic golf champion.
“Olympic gold medalist – It sounds absolutely incredible,” said the 36-year-old. “I was on that last green, just sort of pinching myself and taking myself back to the quote that I had given about the Olympics all along – that I hoped my resumé one day read: ‘multiple major champion and Olympic gold medalist’ and if that happened then I’d be a very, very happy man. I pretty much just need the multiple major now, but for the most part, I’m there on that quote.
“The whole week, I’ve been so focused, really, to be honest with you. I’ve been so into it. I’ve been so up for it. I’ve been just so determined, I suppose, to represent Team GB as best as I could, and it was just the most magical week, it really was.”
The final round in Rio delivered the anticipated head-to-head between two outstanding major champions. And both men held a narrow lead at different times as they exchanged birdies.
It seemed that Stenson might repeat his Open victory at Royal Troon when he edged in front due to a Rose bogey at the 13th, but he handed back the initiative to the Englishman when he bogeyed the 14th and Rose knocked in an eight-footer for birdie on the 15th.
Despite both men missing the green at the last, it was Stenson who blinked first, hitting a weak chip to 25 feet while Rose struck a deft chip close to the hole for a cast-iron birdie four.
Stenson recognised the quality of the golf on display on the final day and admitted: “When you’re in good position to try and win, you always kind of feel a little disappointed afterwards. But at the same time, we said that all along in the Olympics, you’ve got some pretty good consolation prizes.
“I guess if you would have asked me before the week that I would leave here with a medal, I would have been pretty pleased and I managed to do that. I’m quite happy, I didn’t feel like I played my absolute best throughout the week but I played good enough to put myself in contention and that was my goal. Once I was up there, I played pretty well but I needed to play one or two shots better to win it today. “
Rose paid tribute to his rival and friend by saying: “I just said today that I had to out-Stenson Stenson. I knew I wasn’t going to get much from him at all. Obviously the bogey at the last only came because he had to force the putt in.
“But he is unbelievable. He’s relentless and a great player, and I can’t wait to be on the same team as him in The Ryder Cup. He’s a great player and he’s a great friend, and I just gave him a hug on the 18th green and he was as gracious as ever. I just said to him, ‘Great summer – winning The Open Championship’, I was so pleased for him. There are very few guys are you really genuinely, genuinely happy for, and Henrik is one of them.”
Bronze medalist Kuchar just came up short, despite equaling the record 63 set by Australian Marcus Fraser on Thursday. Had he not three putted the 16th and failed to birdie the 18th, he might just have grabbed another colour of medal.
The American Ryder Cup player said: “It’s just an amazing week. It’s a boyhood dream come true. I keep expressing the feeling of sheer pride. I knew when I was out there playing that I was in third place. I certainly didn’t want to lose that but also wanted to keep pushing forward.
“While I was out there, playing that back nine, the sense of being an Olympic medalist really hit me. There were times I kind of had to back off a few times and regather my thoughts and composure to make sure I try to continue to hit good shots and keep making birdies.”
Quotes of the Day
JUSTIN ROSE: “I think it sits alongside the US Open trophy for me, for sure. I think people want to keep comparing the two, major championship or Olympic gold, I don’t think they should be compared to one another. I said earlier this year that if my resumé one day read “multiple major champion and Olympic gold medalist,” I would be a very, very happy man. Just going to tag on another major now.”
HENRIK STENSON: “You play for your country and I think I did that pretty well today. It was always going to be a battle — or I was hoping it was going to be a battle with me and Justin for the gold and the silver, and it was in the end. I think we both pleased to be a couple of shots ahead of Matt there coming into the last couple of holes, and it was down to the last hole and Justin just swung that a little bit quicker than me up the 18th (laughs).”
MATT KUCHAR: “I grew up a fan of sport. I had the dreams most boys have of hoping to compete in an Olympics, hoping to win a medal. The sport I ended up choosing was the sport that through my lifetime has not been an Olympic sport. When it did become an Olympic sport, the lights went off and said, how amazing, I can’t believe I now potentially have the opportunity.”
JUSTIN ROSE: (on using a picture of Michael Phelps for motivation) “I think the picture sort of circulated on social media a little bit. I think Michael Phelps is literally just doing his stroke, eyes forward, and then there’s a guy to his right kind of looking at him. You know, part of our mentality was just to keep our eyes forward and play as hard as we could and take care of our business. That’s what Henrik does so well. I knew that would be a strategy that wouldn’t necessarily give me an advantage today but it would kind of – it was something that was going to be very, very useful. It was a nice, powerful image on which to work off.”
HENRIK STENSON: (comparing Olympic atmosphere to a major championship) “It is slightly different and I don’t think you necessarily need to compare, either. It’s a whole new experience for us as golfers, participating here, and it’s been a fun one. I’m really happy I went. It’s memories of a lifetime being here competing, and we’re competing for our countries more than we do normally in a way. Yeah, it’s been a nice ten days in Brazil.”
MATT KUCHAR: “To look at the support that was out here, to look at the guys that came through, won medals, I think it speaks for itself. This event has gone over I think fantastically well. Amazing support from the crowds. I wasn’t really sure what to expect as far as golf in Brazil. I didn’t think that it would have great support and it really did. If you take the broadcast and then look at what a great showdown to have these two guys battling down the end. I don’t know that it could have gone much better for the game. It’s a clear winner to move forward.”