Playing for your country but not as a team
August 08, 2016
By Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM
- Martin Kaymer poses in front of the Olympic rings ahead of the golf competition in Rio. (Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO – Two Irish golfers – Padraig Harrington and Seamus Power -- will represent their country this week at the Olympics. One turns 45 later this month and has three majors; the other is 29 and should get his PGA TOUR card next season. They know of each other, and may even have spoken on the phone recently.
“Just to say hello,” said Harrington, the elder statesman.
But they’ve never met. The first time they’ll do so is here in Rio.
While Harrington and Power will wear the same uniform and encourage each other to perform well for their medal-starved country – Ireland has won just 29 medals in 20 Summer Olympic appearances, albeit six in the most-recent London Games -- in the end, they are competitors.
Both share the dream of Olympic gold, but unlike most golf tournaments in which players wear their country’s colors, they won’t share the success.
Individual stroke-play in the men’s event – as well as next week’s women’s tournament – offers the sport’s traditional competitive format wrapped in a unique Olympic spin. Players represent their countries but play for only themselves.
That rarely happens in golf.
“I’d be hoping that the two of us have a chance coming down the last nine holes,” Harrington said of Power. “… I’d be delighted if the two of us were 5 shots clear of the field (but) if we were in a playoff to win it, I wouldn’t expect any quarter and I wouldn’t give any quarter.”
No other major team event in golf provides such theatre. When you wear your country’s uniform, the foe generally is on the other side, wearing a different uniform. Think Presidents Cup, Ryder Cup, Walker Cup, Solheim Cup, etc.
But in Rio, of the 60 players in the men’s field, 50 will have at least one fellow countryman in the field. Thanks to its depth in the world’s top-15 rankings, the USA has four -- the only country with more than two.
That means Bubba Watson not only is trying to beat the Irish duo, the two Brits, the two Aussies and so on, but he’s also trying to beat Rickie Fowler, Patrick Reed and Matt Kuchar.
“Just remember – we’re not a team,” Watson said. “If me and one of the guys are in a playoff, I don’t like that guy. Hate’s a strong word, so I’m just going to say I don’t like that guy.
“We’re not a team. Well, we are a team but we’re not. Just because we wear the same outfits doesn’t mean we’re pulling for each other.”
Patrick Reed on his preparation for the Olympics
Kuchar has represented the U.S. no less than a dozen times in six different events, giving him the kind of broad-scope perspective few others in this week’s field can match. The concept of representing his country but playing individually was so foreign to him that he just assumed there had to be a team component.
In July after the final qualification list was announced at The Open Championship, Kuchar was asked about the Olympic stroke-play format. At that time, he thought it was similar to the World Cup in 2013 – two players represent a country in the team portion, with an individual leaderboard running concurrently. That year in Melbourne, Jason Day and Adam Scott won the team portion for Australia, with Day winning the individual portion. Kuchar and his partner, Kevin Streelman, finished second as a team, while Kuchar was fourth individually.
Kuchar was half-right. The individual portion remains for the Olympics, but there is no team competition. He found that out while answering an Olympic question last week at the Travelers Championship.
“I played with Kevin Streelman,” Kuchar explained. “We never played together but we did represent the United States in a team format. That was my initial impression of what was happening with the Olympics but I’m incorrect on that.”
Even with just the individual award at stake, Kuchar said he’ll still be cheering for his fellow Americans.
“I think that’s the nature of golf,” Kuchar said. “You certainly pull for your friends. When you got teammates, you pull for them. It is an individual game. We’ll all be shooting for gold. You certainly hope if it’s not yourself, it’s one of your teammates.”
Germany’s Martin Kaymer said his attitude entering this week will be similar to Sunday at the Ryder Cup, when players compete in singles matches. He’s made three Ryder Cup appearances, including 2012 when his putt on the final hole beat Steve Stricker to clinch Europe’s historic comeback victory.
“Ultimately I play for myself because that’s all I can do for my country,” said Kaymer, who’ll compete against countryman Alex Cejka this week. “If I take care of my business, then I help my country as well.
“So I think it’s similar to if you play the singles in The Ryder Cup. Somehow you play for the team, but in that moment, it’s only about you. That you deliver your point. And that is the way I see it at the Olympic Games.”
Other concepts besides individual stroke-play were considered when golf was first discussed as an Olympic sport. But in the end, the traditional, easy-to-understand format was considered the best approach on this grand global stage.
Justin Rose -- who’ll share the same colors as fellow Brit and reigning Masters champ Danny Willett this week – also considers it the fairest test.
“If you’re looking at getting the truest champion, 72-hole stroke play golf is the tried-and-true format,” Rose said. “If you start to get funky team formats, it can dilute a certain player’s potential. If you have a country with a great player and maybe a weaker player, that’s probably not fair to the great player or the higher-ranked player …
“So I think 72-hole stroke play is the most fair and simple. It gives you the correct outcome.”
Even if it means you have to defeat a guy wearing the same shirt. Or a guy you’ve never met until this week.