Golf is often a game of inches, but Rory McIlroy took Olympic golf one giant leap forward by announcing his conversion to the spirit of the Games in Tokyo.
he four-time Major winner had a chance on the 72nd green to claim a bronze medal with an 18-foot birdie putt.
But while it came up “one or two revolutions short of speed,” his 67 condemned him to a seven-man, sudden-death play-off on 15-under. And despite eventual elimination on the third extra hole, he admitted he is now a convert to the Olympic cause.
“I definitely think so,” McIlroy said after his birdie putt at the third extra hole lipped out.
“I made some comments before that were probably uneducated and impulsive, but coming here experiencing it, seeing, feeling everything that goes on, not just Olympic golf but just the Olympics in general, that sort of Olympic spirit’s definitely bitten me, and I’m excited how this week’s turned out and excited for the future.”
The Holywood star closed with a battling four-under 67 to finish three strokes behind American Xander Schauffele, who claimed gold at Kasumigaseki Country Club when he made a clutch up-and-down for par at the last, rolling in a five-footer for a 67 to win by a shot on 18-under from Slovakia’s Rory Sabbatini, who had set the target with an Olympic record, 10-under 61.
“It makes me even more determined going to Paris and try to pick one up, it’s disappointing going away from here without any hardware”, added McIlroy, who ended up in a pulsating, seven-man play-off for the bronze with Team GB’s Paul Casey (68), Japan’s first Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama (69), Chile’s Mito Pereira (67), Colombia’s Sebastián Muñoz (67), Chinese Taipei’s C.T. Pan (63) and Open champion Collin Morikawa (63).
Split into two groups for a sudden-death play-off that went four holes (18th, 10th, 11th, and 18th), Pereira, Muñoz, Pan and Morikawa started with pars before Casey and Matsuyama bowed out with bogeys, and McIlroy got up and down from close to 100 yards for par to stay alive.
The five survivors parred the short 10th before Pan and Morikawa birdied the 11th as Muñoz made bogey and Pereira and McIlroy lipped out for birdie to go out.
Pan then made a scrambling par at the 18th to take bronze after Morikawa uncharacteristically plugged his approach in the front bunker and bogeyed.
“I’ve been saying all day I never tried so hard in my life to finish third,” McIlroy said as the medals were decided. “I wish I was leaving here with a medal, but it’s been a brilliant week.
“It’s not just another golf tournament; put it that way. You are part of something that’s much bigger, and I am really looking forward to Paris in three years.
“It’s been really good, and hopefully, Shane and I both make the team again because I have really enjoyed his company this week. It was a throwback to our amateur days, and I really enjoyed that.”
McIlroy has gone through the full gamut of emotions over the Olympics since Pádraig Harrington made the final submission to the IOC for golf’s return 12 years ago.
When the International Golf Federation (IGF) did him a favour and set rules that dictated he had to play for the team he’d represented in previous international events, he skipped Rio 2016, citing his fears of the Zika virus before heading to Japan with little enthusiasm.
“I’m not a very patriotic guy,” he said two weeks ago.
“I am doing it because I think it is the right thing to do, and I missed it last time.”
Now he can’t wait for Paris 2024, and Shane Lowry wants to join him after he was “very disappointed” to close with a level-par 71 that left him tied 22nd on 10-under.
Lowry’s medal hopes evaporated in a lacklustre outward nine of 39 as he bogeyed the par-three fourth and double-bogeyed the ninth before he repaired the damage with birdies at the 14th, 16th and 17th.
“It’s tough to take because I went out there, and I really wanted to win a medal for everyone back home,” said the Offaly man, who admitted the Olympics were far bigger than he imagined.
“I was anxious going out there today, I felt it. I knew how much it meant. I’d never been to the Olympics, and you don’t know what to expect. You know it’s going to be different to every other event, but when I got here, it felt like a big deal.”
McIlroy and Lowry now head to Memphis later this week for the WGC FedEx St Jude Invitational, but they could also be partners in next month’s Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits, where fellow Olympian Harrington is European skipper.
“I wouldn’t mind that,” McIlroy said with a grin. “Shane and I would both like that. This is going to be my sixth Ryder Cup, and it’ll be Shane’s first. If Pádraig is looking for someone to take a rookie around, I wouldn’t mind pairing up with Shane.”