Justin Rose speaks with a golden glint in the eye whenever it’s about the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
In 2016, Rose, representing Team Great Britain, claimed the gold medal as golf made a welcome return into the Olympics, edging Sweden’s Henrik Stenson by two shots following a memorable final day duel.
Matt Kuchar took the bronze for Team USA after rallying with a closing 63 and shed a tear on the podium which signified the enormity of the moment, not just for himself but for the game of golf in the larger scheme of things.
With 2020 being year of the Olympics with Tokyo preparing to host the greatest sporting showpiece this summer, all three golf stars are coincidentally in the Far East for the SMBC Singapore Open this week, with their medals in tow for promotional activities at Sentosa Golf Club. The US$1 million tournament is sanctioned by the Asian Tour and Japan Golf Tour.
“Tokyo is a huge priority for me,” said Rose on Wednesday.
“There’s no given right to be back there. Defending is obviously my goal, to play well this year and to make as many points as possible to secure my position in Team GB is very much on the top of my list.
“Honestly, it’s been probably the biggest gift of my career (winning the gold). I think it’s really lasted so much longer than any other tournaments that I’ve ever won. Obviously the time cycle is four years and no one really knew what golf in the Olympics meant until now. It’s really been a fantastic thing and the fact it links me to so many other great athletes in other sports, it’s something very, very cool.”
With the men’s golf competition scheduled to begin at Kasumigaseki Country Club on July 30, it will coincide with Rose’s 40th birthday which only adds the impetus to ensure a successful gold medal defence.
“It’ll be a nice birthday present. Maybe just a slice of cake that evening but I’ll be deferring celebrations till much later. My 40th is a milestone event but at the same time, I’ve got to be able to keep my focus on the job at hand.”
A 10-time winner on the PGA TOUR and holder of 11 victories on the European Tour, Rose revealed he truly soaked in the Olympics experience in Rio. He exchanged views with fellow Team GB tennis star and double gold medallist, Andy Murray, and saw up close how the rugby seven’s players trained and pushed themselves to be stronger, faster and better. He also got to meet the Queen Elizabeth and the U.K. royal family who honoured the athletes after the Games.
“It gave me the opportunity to meet with so many different athletes from different sports and go about in understanding their business. I’ve never met Andy Murray before and we had an opportunity to sit and chat for an hour during Rio. Andy was really interested with how much golfers pay attention to technique and the sense I got from him is that he doesn’t really focus much on technique … he focuses on the strategy of the game and playing the opponent. The actual technique of the groundstrokes and the serve, it seems like he didn’t obsess over that whereas golfers can obsess over technique quite a bit. It was interesting to hear his mindset on that,” said Rose.
“I also trained in the gym with the rugby sevens team and it was fun to watch. The camaraderie they have amongst themselves, really pushing each other to be better and stronger, that was cool to watch.
“After Rio, I had the opportunity along with other Team GB members to be invited to the Buckingham Palace and we got to meet a lot of the Royal Family and that was really a proud moment. It’s something I would never ever forget.”
Stenson is eager to have another crack at gold in Tokyo. In Rio, he led by one shot with five holes remaining but was overtaken by close friend and Ryder Cup teammate, Rose down the stretch.
“It’s obviously a big goal to both be there and to be ready to perform like the last time,” said Stenson. “Everyone goes with the main goal of getting a gold medal and one of us got it. We got second and third place and we all look back at the great memories from Rio and want to make some new ones in Tokyo.”
The Swede, who has six wins on the PGA TOUR, plans to arrive in Japan well before the golf competition to participate in the opening ceremony with Team Sweden. “Being part of the opening ceremony in Rio … it was a proud moment,” said the 43-year-old.
“Growing up, I watched the winter and summer Olympics a lot and it’s not something that you think one day I want to play there as golf wasn’t in the Olympics for a long time. And once golf was in, it became a goal to be there and to really experience the Games as an athlete and seeing it from the inside was something very special.”
Stenson’s silver medal has suffered a few scratches and even a dent as it has been used at charity events, media activities and brought for “Show and Tell” in school by his children.
“At the time, I was the reigning Open champion and silver medallist and
those two travelled together and I don’t know if the Claret Jug started being
annoyed with the silver medal and banged it up,” laughed the Swede.
“It was a lot of tournaments, a lot of media and a lot of charity events. It went everywhere. It went to my kids’ schools … my daughter wanted it for “Show and Tell” and she’s a bit more careful than my son is. Since I promised her, my son wanted to take it too and he dropped his backpack with the medal in it and there’s a big dent at the bottom now.
“It’s not in the best of state … maybe I should just get a matching gold one (in Tokyo).”
The Swede believes golf’s return to the Olympics after a 112-year lapse has greatly impacted the growth of the sport around the world. “We’re reaching out to a broader audience and certainly back home in Sweden, there were many more people watching me go head-to-head with Justin for the gold medal than seeing me win the Open Championship,” said Stenson.
“It’s great for the growth of the game on a worldwide scale. All the NOCs (National Olympic Councils) are getting the support to grow the game in their respective countries and areas where golf might not be as strong as it is in other parts of the world.
“We had messages afterwards from people saying ‘I’ve never tried golf and never really watched it but I watched the Olympics and I want to go out now to try the game’. I think these are some of the key moments for us being part of it. It is a special event, being once every four years. Winning major championships is huge in our sport but you can only be Olympic champion once every four years.”
Kuchar squeezed into the Team USA in 2016 following the withdrawals of several higher-ranked Americans but he grabbed the opportunity with both hands, producing a herculean final day effort to secure the bronze. He recalled how he teared up when the medal was placed around his neck. “Man, the medal ceremony … finishing up on 18 green and having the medal presented, it brought tears to my eyes.
“To go out and have to shoot a great round to get a medal in the Olympics, I got out there and had some good things going. I kept pushing and was able to secure the third place. What a thrill that was,” said Kuchar.
A regular visitor to Japan, the 41-year-old American believes the sport will benefit with Tokyo playing host to the stars of the game. “I think everybody sees golf as being a great addition to the Olympics, in particular in Japan. Knowing the culture there and the love that they have for golf, to have golf being part of the Olympics, I think it’s going to be a huge success,” said Kuchar.
He is prepared to fight for his spot in Team USA in the coming months which currently has 12 Americans ahead of him on the Official World Golf Ranking which is used to determine the 60-man field for the Olympic Games. “I’m going to need to be playing really well to make the U.S. team. You have to be up the rankings and be in the top-four on the American list,” said Kuchar, who is presently ranked 24th in the world.
“It’s a tough team to make but it’s a goal of mine.”