RIO DE JANEIRO — Walking from the driving range to the first tee Sunday morning at Olympic Golf Course, Rickie Fowler passed by Gil Hanse, the architect who had designed the course. Hanse greeted Fowler, a friend from previous meetings, and shook his hand.
“Thanks for coming,” Hanse said. “It’s very cool. How’s it going?”
“Can’t complain,” Fowler said. “It’s been great. Just trying to make all the other boys jealous who didn’t come.”
Golf at the Rio Olympics, for the entire summer, has been more about all those other boys. The best four players in the world — Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy — elected not to play in the first Olympic golf tournament, creating doubt about the worthiness of the field. It will soon, at last, be about who did show up, thanks in part to the stunning new course about make its worldwide entrance. No player has embraced Olympic golf more than Fowler, and he couldn’t be happier he did.
After shaking Hanse’s hand, Fowler bounced away, a wide grin spreading on his face. He stuck a peg in the ground and blasted a drive down the first fairway, the start of his maiden practice round on a nearly untouched track. He wore a red shirt, blue hat and American-flag Pumas. Already, he had marched in the Opening Ceremonies, made friends with some of the best athletes in the country and toured the Olympic Village, where he chose live. No DJ or Rory? Fowler is having too much fun to worry about it, except when he sends his close friend Spieth a text message with the objective of spawning envy.
“Words really can’t describe it,” Fowler said. “I’m trying to make some of my other buddies that stayed home as jealous as possible. They’re definitely missing out.”
The players who stayed home couldn’t march through Maracana Stadium, surrounded by new friends on the U.S. volleyball team. They couldn’t hang out with half the diving team and watch the first night of swimming competition. They couldn’t meet NBA players on the men’s basketball team or talk about training with 200-meter sprinter Jenna Prandini. “Whenever you see someone, you know they’re the best at what they do from their country,” Fowler said. “It’s inspiring.”
Among Americans, Fowler got the first look at the Olympic course. Teammates Matt Kuchar, Bubba Watson and Patrick Reed played the Travelers in Hartford, Conn. Fowler arrived here in time for a Sunday practice round, the preparation he takes for a major.
For years, the land on the course was nothing but an expanse of scrub and marsh. Construction began 3 1/2 years ago. Hanse emphasized the natural environment, moving very little earth and allowing natural contours to shape the course. The sandy terrain prevented growing rough, and so Hanse designed the course to play hard and fast on short, bouncy zeon zyosia grass. If players don’t control their ball, it will roll into waste areas — the same stuff here before the course arrived — or sand traps. It’s not a true links course, and it’s in the style, reminiscent of tracks from Melbourne in Australia’s Sandbelt region.
“We’re very excited with the way it looks,” Hanse said. “This brown is perfect, because that means it’s going to be firm. It’s going to be bouncy. I’m excited about the color of the course.”
“The design of the course is not something you see every week, and I think that makes it real interesting,” said Austrian Bernd Wiesberger, who played with Fowler. “The conditions are brilliant. We have to see how much wind it gets, but as of now it’s on track.”
Fowler’s first practice round allowed him to get acquainted with the wildlife, too. On the second green, Fowler walked to the edge of a small lake, whipped out his phone and pointed the camera at a creature poking above surface.
“Come all this way,” he said, “and there’s a gator.”
Fowler had made a common misidentification: the scaly crocodilian that populates the ponds and marshes around the course is actually the caiman, the smaller, South American cousin of an alligator. On the Olympic course, they’re everywhere. Later in the round, Wiesberger took a selfie with one in the background.
On the sixth hole, on the other side of the lake, Fowler rushed to the edge of the water as he walked to his drive. He’d spotted a capybara — the largest rodent in the world — hanging out near the fairway. It looked like an overgrown combination of squirrel and beaver. Fowler pulled out his phone, but the capybara splashed into the water before he could snap a photo.
“Kind of an interesting creature,” Fowler said. “Definitely something different.”
By the end of the sixth hole, Fowler had discovered how much the wind whipping off the beach could affect the tournament. A gust came off the water and never stopped. The wind ripped green plastic off TV towers and blew the hat off Fowler’s caddie’s head.
One of Fowler’s tee shots, into the gale, on the par-3, 172-yard eighth hole came up well short. Just messing around, Fowler pulled out his driver and mashed a shot that barely made it over the green. On the next hole, a 369-yard par-4, he ripped another driver in the opposite direction. With the wind helping, his ball stopped about 12 paces shy of the green. The wind had made about 100 yards of difference.
Fowler decided against playing the back nine because the wind threatened to throw off his swing, so instead he walked it to get a feel, chipping and putting on the greens. He walked in with Brazil’s Victoria Lovelady, a friend of Fowler’s caddie. Afterward, they posed for a picture standing behind Lovelady’s bag, emblazoned with the Brazilian flag. She fake-interviewed him, using a wedge for a mic.
For all uproar of the Big Four’s absence, it has gone overlooked that all of the best women’s players will be in Rio. And those who decided to come have embraced Olympic golf fully. Lovelady called the Opening Ceremonies, with apologies to her husband, the best night of her life.
“We are late about not talking about who is coming,” Lovelady said. “You have Rickie, Bubba, all the top guys within the top 10. I was with Martin Kaymer and Padraig Harrington a few weeks ago in a pro-am, and they couldn’t stop saying how excited they were to come. So too bad that the media focused so much on the ones that are not coming. But we do have the top here as well.”
Days before the tournament starts, Fowler has cherished his experience. After he smashed a drive on the fourth hole Sunday, Fowler strutted down the fairway. An official he knew from the tour rode over in a golf cart and jokingly greeted him.
“Would you like a ride up to your ball?” he asked. “Got a four-seater.”
“I’m good,” Fowler said, playfully puffing out his chest. “I’m an Olympic athlete.”