Olympic Golf: A Team Feel Turns Back Into Individual Quest

By DOUG FERGUSON, Associated Press

KAWAGOE, Japan — Justin Thomas is playing in his first Olympics and it all feels so familiar.

Thomas played another practice round with his fellow Americans — two of them, anyway, with Patrick Reed a late arrival as an alternate.

They have matching uniforms and “USA” stitched on their blue golf bags. There were side bets. There was plenty of needling, especially when British Open champion Collin Morikawa missed a birdie putt. And they shared information on lies in the rough, depth of the bunkers.

This could just as easily been a Wednesday at the Ryder Cup.

“It's tough and it's weird. I don't know what it is, if it's just having the team uniform on with the bags," Thomas said. “It does feel like we are part of a team, and it feels like we should help each other out. But in reality, I hope I beat those guys' brains in.”

The men's golf competition begins at tree-lined and stifling hot Kasumigaseki Country Club, and it will play out like any other tournament. With a 60-man field represented by 35 countries, it has the look of a World Golf Championship.

The difference is Sunday, when three medals are awarded instead of $10.5 million. For 18 players in the Olympics, they'll be in equally hot and sweaty Memphis, Tennessee, next week where it's all about the cash.

“I would say more so than any other event, if we are not able to medal, then you're obviously going to pull for your country and want your guys to get it done,” Thomas said.

"But I definitely had to remind myself a couple times. Those team events, you can get away with maybe not having your best stuff ... because you have a partner and you're able to feed off the energy.

“So it's a little bit different, but I guess we've all adjusted to it OK.”

In its second edition since returning from a century-long absence, golf lacks an element of team except for the practice rounds and interview sessions, when it only looks like a team.

One solution is a format used in the Junior Olympics, a three-day, mixed-team event of medal play in alternate shot, better ball and then an individual round in which both scores count.

One problem is timing. The tours are in the meat of their schedules, and organizers question whether they can afford to lose another week.

“I think it would be tough to do, but if they were able to perfect it and get a good system, I think it would be fun," Thomas said.

There is plenty at stake as it is.

Hideki Matsuyama played his practice round alone, and the Masters champion didn't seem terribly pleased with his driver falling out of his hands and onto the ground as tee shots headed for the trees.

Already the best player from Japan, expectations soared when he brought home that green jacket from Augusta National in April. Easing some of the pressure is the absence of spectators, banned from the venues during these pandemic-delayed Olympics.

Even more pressure falls to Sungjae Im and Siwoo Kim of South Korea, both getting their first chance at winning an Olympic medal, the ticket for them being exempt from mandatory military service that would take them out of commission for 18 months.

Rikuya Hoshino of Japan was selected to hit the opening tee shot, just like Addison da Silva of Brazil started it off in Rio de Janiero five years ago.

Rory McIlroy didn't sound terribly enthused about his Olympic debut when he left the British Open, saying that he's “not a very patriotic guy” and there might not be much to look forward to with no spectators and athletes not allowed to watch other events.

Kasumigaseki was eerily silent on the eve of the Olympics, and it might not change the rest of the week without any spectators. But players can expect a pristine course, which has been largely closed the past two months to get ready.

Also playing for Ireland with Shane Lowry, who had an entirely different outlook.

“I’m not going on holidays, I’m going to try and win a medal. I’m adamant I want to win an Olympic medal," Lowry said. “I think it would be huge for our country and it would be huge for me and my family.”

Reed, meanwhile, was the last to arrive. Because he required three negative COVID-19 tests, the last one was Monday evening. He was on a flight the next day and arrived in Tokyo in time to at least get checked in.

Reed is among only eight players who were in Rio for the previous Olympics, perhaps a reminder that returning in 2024 in Paris is no guarantee.