Ireland didn’t win a medal as Seamus Power’s final round charge petered out and Pádraig Harrington’s never got started because of a neck injury,
But as Justin Rose held off Henrik Stenson to win gold and Matt Kuchar shot 63 alongside Harrington to win bronze, the return of golf to the Olympics after an absence of 112 years was hailed as a massive success.
The athletes themselves said so to a man but it was also the feeling of Irish team leader Paul McGinley, who believes the event will only go from strength to strength and the players who skipped it this time will be falling over themselves to play in Japan in 2020
“It’s been a tremendous experience,” McGinley told RTE television. "It has been not just a good success, it's been an overwhelming success with sell out crowds — 15,000 today and yesterday. Somebody was saying that of the 28 events here this week, next to the athletics stadium, the biggest crowd watching any sport has been at the golf.
“Lots of Irish, lots of athletes from other sports coming out and the two thoroughbreds in Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose, who have embraced this whole idea of having golf in the Olympics from day one, ended up in a shootout and it was a tremendous finish.”
Rose and Stenson were tied on 15 under par heading to the par-five 18th and it was the Englishman who took gold, pitching to three feet from inside 40 yards to set up a birdie that Stenson failed to match.
The Swede ended up charging his 25 foot birdie putt eight feet past and missed the return, leaving Rose two putts for the gold medal from close range.
He needed just one, tapping in to finish two in front of the Open champion (68) on 16 under par with Kuchar taking bronze on 13 under.
OLYMPIC 2016 STATISTICS
- Final leaderboard
- Justin Rose's shot by shot
- Player statistics by category
- Player by player statistics
- Player scorecards
“They have done their countries and themselves a huge service,” McGinley said of the golfers who committed to the OIlympic cause. "Representing your country is a huge honour and they know that. And to be associated with representing your country and to go and support your fellow athletes is really special.”
McGinley said he and the other golfers had been inspired by watching at close quarters as the other athletes, including the likes of Michael Phelps, prepared for their events.
Asked about the possible regrets of the absentee golfers, McGinley said: “It’s contagious. When you get here and go to the events and spend time with fellow countrymen and women and support them at the biggest sporting event in the world, it’s contagious. You get so wrapped up in it. You get emotionally attached to it and even more energised.
“Some of the English press guys were telling me afterwards that after the first round, they have never seen Pádraig so emotional, even after the majors that he won. And that’s what it means to these guys.”
Asked if the Olympics could become golf’s fifth major, McGinley said: “I don’t know about fifth major, but it will always have a position at the top table of honours in golf. This has not just been a good success, it has been an outstanding success at so many different levels, particular from the players and what they have been saying.
“Martin Kaymer has won two majors and tens of millions of dollars around the world. He holed the winning putt in the Ryder Cup. He said this was the best experience he has ever had in his life — not just in golf, but in everything. Every single player seems to be saying something along those lines.
“I really think it is going to elevate. I know a lot of players chose not to come this year and that is disappointing, obviously.
"But I would be very surprised if in four years’ time, when word goes back to them and when they watch the pictures of the last four days, and words comes back from the players and caddies and everybody who has been out here in Rio, if we don’t have a full complement of all players in Tokyo.”
The absence of world's top four in Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy as well as Graeme McDowell and Shane Lowry was seen as a blow to Olympic golf. As it turned out, they were the big losers.
For one thing, all six missed out on world ranking points with Stenson’s silver medal moving him above McIlroy to No 4 and leaving the Holywood star, now No 5, with his lowest ranking for more than two years.
Harrington’s two over 73 left him tied 21st in Rio on three under while Power’s 67 left him tied 21st on a day when he stormed to six under through 10 holes and to within a shot of the bronze medal spot before he played his last five holes in two over.
The West Waterford man was still thrilled to represent Ireland.
Speaking to RTÉ Sport after his round, Power said: “It’s kind of one of those ‘What could have been' weeks.
"The final three or four holes are the ones you really want to get after and I played them horribly this week.
“Overall, it was a great experience I gave my best, it just wasn’t quite meant to be.
“I was five under through six, I was six under through 10 and I’d a couple of near misses, on two and nine so it could have been something really special.
“A couple of loose shots on 14 and 15 but overall I can’t complain, I just left myself too much to do."
Grateful for the chance to compete after McIlroy, Lowry and McDowell said no, Power said: "It’s unbelievable. Just representing Ireland on a stage like this, is something, as a golfer, you never thought you’d get. It’s such an honour for me, I had a great time.
“Paul [McGinley, team captain] and Padraig [Harrington] were fantastic. All the support from everyone back home, West Waterford golf club. They were sending messages like you wouldn’t believe.
“It was pretty special, I’ll never forget it.”
Harrington, just four shots off the bronze medal spot starting the day, was clearly disappointed to be hampered by a recurrence of an old neck injury he’s kept under control for several years.
“What can I say,” he said. "I was struggling with neck injury and couldn’t brace up at impact. I was hoping I would get some momentum at the start but I really didn’t know where it was going to go.
"I have been fighting it all week but it came up yesterday afternoon. I felt like I was clearly like Annika Sorenstam - i just couldn’t keep myself in the shots or brace at impact.
"I obviously needed a big day out there and it wasn’t to be. I am disappointed that the injury was there and it didn’t give me the chance to play well.
"But Matt shot a flawless eight under par that could have been more. It would have been hard to beat him today. I am not devastated over the medal chance, just disappointed because I have been doing quite well with that injury for a couple of years. Dodgy pillow.”
Asked for his overall impressions, Harrington added: "I think the tournament was great. I think the players loved it. There was a nice buzz all week. Nice buzz out there today. I got to play with a medal winner, which was nice. No downside whatsoever.”
Rose took a one-shot lead over Stenson into the final round and there was never more than a stroke between them until the end, with both men carding three birdies in the first five holes.
A bogey on the seventh briefly cost Rose the outright lead but he responded superbly with a birdie from five feet on the next, only for Stenson to draw level again with a two-putt birdie on the 10th.
Stenson then took the lead for the first time when Rose failed to get up and down from a greenside bunker on the 13th, but was struggling with an injury and received treatment from a physio after hitting his tee shot on the 14th.
Having missed the green, Stenson then hit a poor chip and missed from 20 feet for par, before Rose crucially holed from 15 feet after splashing out of more sand.
That left the pair tied for the lead with Kuchar only a shot behind after a superb tee shot on the 17th set up a tap-in birdie, but Rose edged in front again with a birdie on the 15th.
Kuchar needed to birdie the last to record a superb 62 and keep the pressure on, but left his putt short from 18 feet and had to wait to see if a certain bronze could be upgraded if the top duo faltered.
There was no chance of that when Stenson pitched to four feet for birdie on the short 16th to join Rose on 15 under, but it was Rose who produced the best pitch on the par-five 18th to secure a famous win.
“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.”
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 16thand 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
“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.”
“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).”
“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.”
“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.”