Golf will crown its first Olympic champion for 112 years in Rio de Janeiro tomorrow, and all indications are that the sport will witness an epic battle for the medals at Reserva de Marapendi as Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson and Marcus Fraser go for gold.
Rose, the 2013 US Open champion, delivered a brilliant third round 65 to take a one-shot lead over Stenson, the reigning Open champion, in front of large and enthusiastic crowds in the Rio sunshine, many of whom might have been unfamiliar with the high quality of golf served up by the leading players.
Rose tees off last tomorrow standing at 201, 12-under-par, with Stenson’s hard-working 68 earning his second place total of 202. Fraser, who opened the competition with a course record 63 on Thursday, dug in hard to shoot a round of 72 for third place on 204. The highly motivated trio all have the glint of gold in their eye going into the home stretch of an absorbing Olympic contest.
Once again, Stenson is in contention when the big prizes are handed out. The Swede goes into the last round in second place, one stroke behind another major champion in Great Britain’s Rose, with Australian Fraser close behind.
However, the race for the gold, silver and bronze could run well beyond the final group. Major champions Bubba Watson of the United States (207) and Ireland’s Padraig Harrington (208) will be chasing a low score to post a clubhouse target to test the leaders as the quest for gold intensifies.
Rose, who bagged eagles at the third and fifth holes to soar to the top of the leaderboard, admitted it “felt great” to be in the gold medal position going into the final round.
He added: “Obviously I felt like today was an important day. There were a lot of players in contention after yesterday and I felt like today could be a day to separate or at least keep some momentum and not give myself too much work to do tomorrow. Obviously, this tournament has been very, very special and very, very different for all of us.”
Saturday is traditionally ‘moving day’ and that was very much in evidence in Rio. Rickie Fowler of the United States set the tone earlier in the day with a seven-under-par 64, the second lowest of the week, to climb 36 places into a tie for 14th on 210. Another low score could earn Fowler a tilt at the minor medals while his compatriot, Watson, is very much in the shake-up after a second successive 67.
Harrington matched Watson’s 67 to sit on the coat-tails of the leaders on 208 while a 66 put Finland’s Mikko Ilonen into the mix, also on 208.
Stenson, who admitted that his busy summer of contending for majors had tested his mental reserves of energy, is being kept company in the medal hunt by his fellow Swede, David Lingmerth, whose 68 for 207 propelled him ten places up the leaderboard and into the penultimate group alongside Watson and Argentina’s Emiliano Grillo (68-207).
Stenson insisted he is fully focused on winning the gold medal and commented: “In my mind, we’re still going for one thing – gold. Even though the consolation prizes might be better here than some other events in a way, it’s still the No. 1 spot that I’m looking for and I’m going to try my hardest to make that happen. It’s been a long and tiring stretch for me the last month, so I’m just going to try and squeeze whatever I have left in the tank for the final 18 holes.”
QUOTES OF THE DAY
Justin Rose 201 (67, 69, 65): “It’s more like a Ryder Cup than a major, but I would say it’s more unique than either of those two. I couldn’t pigeonhole it into either category to be honest with you, and that’s been my whole approach to the Olympic Games is that you can’t compare it to anything else.
“I think it’s probably lived up to my expectations. I feel like the crowd have been a lot of fun to play in front of. There’s been a lot of goodwill for all of the players from all different nationalities, but at the same time you have your pockets of fans that are really cheering for you. Yeah, it’s been a fun crowd to be a part of.”
Henrik Stenson 202 (66, 68, 68): “It’s been motivating to be pushed on by some of my countrymen and women from other sports. I’ve seen quite a lot of the handballers out there and some of the other Swedish athletes. When you’ve got someone from your national team and another sport out there watching you play, of course you want to perform well. That’s been good, good support. I think it’s been decent crowds out there and good atmosphere. Of course there’s quite a few fans that are new to golf and all the rest of it. But all in all, I think that’s been very good.”
Marcus Fraser 204 (63, 69, 72): (on how many people have reached out to him from Australia) “A heap of people to be honest. It’s been overwhelming. Social media has been going into meltdown on the phone. I haven’t got very many followers as it is, but I think I’ve picked up about an extra 400 this week (laughs). I might hang around next week in Rio and keep going, it’s great. “
Bubba Watson 207 (73, 67, 67): “I’ve been treating this different than any other tournament. I mean, this is the Olympics. This is the greatest sporting event that you can ever be associated with. Look at these athletes that are here; this is every sportsman in the world’s dream to be here, and now that golf is in here, I’m a kid in a candy store. And I’m not saying that because I own a candy store. But this is a dream of a lifetime.”
Emiliano Grillo 207 (70, 69, 68): (on thinking about winning a medal) “Oh, yeah, of course. I’ve been thinking since we knew that golf was going to be in the Olympics. It’s been a nice week. It’s been an unbelievable experience, and I honestly cannot wait to get it done tomorrow.”
David Lingmerth 207 (69, 70, 68): “It’s a pretty cool experience here, especially being the first ones back for golf here. It was a really cool feeling Thursday morning to get to tee off. I had an earlier tee time than Henrik, so I was the first Swede to tee off in the Olympic tournament here. It was something I thought of that I feel is pretty special. It’s been a great week, just the atmosphere around here, the village, and out on the golf course, as well, it’s been cool.”
Padraig Harrington 208 (70, 71, 67): “Look, we’re all trying to win the gold. Second and third are great when you get them, but we’re all trying to win the gold, no doubt about it. As I said before, every week, 156 guys tee it up, you have one winner and 155 losers. This week, 60 guys have teed it up and we’re all Olympians, we’re all winners. Everybody will walk away from this feeling like they have achieved something this week.”
Matt Kuchar 208 (69, 70, 69): “I guess it’s yet to be seen until this thing is wrapped up how it’s looked at. But from fan support from other athletes that I’ve run across, everybody is kind of excited that we’re here. I think it’s awesome. I think the further golf goes in the Olympics, the more times it’s played, I think the more support it will get and the more excitement guys will have. I think the opportunity to play for your country, whether it’s a team of two, a team of four, whatever you can do, this has been just such a great experience and it’s just going to continue to grow and grow and grow.”
Rickie Fowler 210 (75, 71, 64): “It’s definitely a different vibe at the Olympics, and having other athletes come out and watch and being able to go watch other athletes compete, it’s a special, special week, and something I’m going to remember forever.”
Jaco Van Zyl 215 (71, 74, 70): (on making a hole-in-one on the 8th hole) “The pin was cut back left just over that trap there, and I just absolutely pured a 7‑iron, and it looked in the moment it came off the face. I hit it to about three inches there on the same hole in the first round – and I chatted to my caddie and I said, ‘there’s something special going in the Olympics’, and lo and behold, two rounds later, we managed to hole in one.”