RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Britain’s Justin Rose and South Korea’s Inbee Park won the first gold medals in golf in more than 100 years as the sport made a solid return to the Olympics despite the absence of eight of the top 15 players from the men’s game.
While the decision of some top golfers to stay away, with some citing concerns over the Zika virus, had stoked controversy ahead of the Games, the drama of the final hole of the men’s game, which saw Rose and Sweden’s Henrik Stenson battling down to the last putts, may have sealed its future as an Olympic sport.
“To anybody making the decision going forward, I would just ask them, were you in Rio on Sunday?,” Rose said, after beating Stenson by two strokes in front of a sold-out gallery.
The United States, which had four players, the most in the men’s field of 60, won a bronze after Matt Kuchar finished third.
Kuchar was included in the tournament after world number three Jordan Spieth, along with Jason Day of Australia, American Dustin Johnson and Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, pulled out ahead of the Games, with some citing concerns over Zika.
U.S. health officials have concluded that Zika infections in pregnant women can cause microcephaly, a birth defect marked by small head size.
Despite the fears over Zika, the women’s game had no high profile no-shows. That tournament was less close, with a runaway five-stroke victory by South Korea’s Park.
New Zealand’s Lydia Ko, 19, finished second to become the youngest Kiwi female medal winner, while China’s Shanshan Feng vowed to grow the sport in the world’s most populous country with her bronze medal.
Both men and women agree that if golf is to stay in the Olympics, the 72 holes of individual stroke play format will needs some tweaks, including a way to incorporate a team game.
The International Golf Federation has said it will likely review the format ahead of Tokyo. IGF president Peter Dawson said he was “hopeful and confident” that it would continue to play a part in the Olympics beyond 2020.
“I would like to see a two-man team. I think you should still have an individual medal, but I would like to see a team format to make things more exciting,” said the United States’ Stacy Lewis, who ended the women’s tournament tied for fourth.
The golf industry pushed for the sport’s inclusion to help boost participation, which has been slipping. Organizers were hoping that the newly built golf course designed by Gil Hanse could also help boost the game in Brazil.
For Gary Player, the legendary golfer who has been a vocal proponent of golf in the Olympics, the tournament had succeeded in cementing golf’s status as an international sport. He tweeted at the conclusion of the Olympics, “Fantastic for six #golf medals going to six nations - Britain, Sweden, USA, South Korea, New Zealand & China... #growth.”
Reporting by Liana B. Baker; Editing by Jan Harvey