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My Year in Golf, 2016: Alistair Tait

http://golfweek.com/2016/12/28/my-year-in-golf-2016-alistair-tait/

As 2016 winds down, members of the Golfweek staff reflect on their year in golf. Up next: Alistair Tait.

• • •

It’s Aug. 7 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Gary Player is sitting on a bench waiting for a shuttle bus to take him to the Olympic Village from the Olympic Golf Course. He’s chatting to Canadians Graham DeLaet and David Hearn, who are also waiting for the bus. It’s about 2 p.m. They’re the only three people in a dusty, empty parking lot outside the media center. To my right are two unfinished high-rise apartments. On my left is the Olympic practice ground. There’s no one on it.

A voice in my head says: “This does not bode well.”

Then the voice in my head says: “Gary Player, nine-time major winner, waiting for a shuttle bus?”

I enter a virtually empty media center. There’s a makeshift feel to it. There’s no giant scoreboard. There are folding tables and chairs. A whiteboard serves as the main information source.

The voice in my head says: “I’ve been to amateur tournaments with better media centers.”

Then the voice repeats: “This does not bode well.”

The golf course is just as empty. Brazilian Victoria Lovelady is on the putting green. Siddikur Rahman from Bangladesh is now the sole player on the driving range. International Golf Federation officials drive around in golf carts looking like they’re trying to find something to do. Ditto for a small number of volunteers.

A giant replica of the five Olympic rings stands behind the 18th green. There’s no one near it. An image of an Old West ghost town enters my mind. I expect to see tumbleweed blow past me at any minute.

The voice in my head again says: “This does not bode well.”

I was a huge supporter of golf in the Olympics. I knew how much it meant to nations with no tradition of the royal and ancient game. Olympic recognition meant more funding from national governments and a chance to grow the game around the world. All I could think of on my first day at the Rio Olympics was disaster. It really did not bode well.

How wrong was I?

Henrik Stenson (silver), Justin Rose (gold), Matt Kuchar (bronze) show off their medals at the 2016 Olympics.

Henrik Stenson (silver), Justin Rose (gold), Matt Kuchar (bronze) show off their medals at the 2016 Olympics. (Getty Images)

A week later, as Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson stride down the 18th fairway in pursuit of the first Olympic golf gold medal since 1904, the voice in my heads says: “Does it get any better than this?”

Almost immediately, the voice asks: “What on earth was I worrying about seven days ago?”

The Olympic Golf course went from ghost town to boom town. Around 8,500 fans turned up on Thursday. A sellout crowd of 10,000 arrived on Sunday. The crowds were far better than those I’d seen in the boxing, table tennis and handball arenas. Half-full stadiums were the order of the day for many sports in Rio. Not for golf.

Rose and Stenson practically guaranteed golf’s inclusion in future Olympics. Their shootout was just what the game needed. Earlier in the week Irish captain Paul McGinley said he wanted an iconic moment to crystallize golf’s return to the Olympics. He got it when Rose holed his final putt and then grabbed the British flag on his chest in patriotic fervor.

I’ve racked up a lot of great experiences in 25 years covering this beautiful game. My 2016 Olympics experience was my best ever, and easily the highlight of my year in golf. Another historic occasion ran it a close second.

Phil Mickelson

Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson were the only two players NBC needed to show Sunday.

It’s Sunday of the British Open, and I’m sitting beside Royal Troon’s 15th green as Stenson and Phil Mickelson battle it out for the Claret Jug. I’m directly behind Stenson as he stands over a 35-foot birdie putt. A voice in my head says: “He’s going to make this.”

He does. I watch the ball track all the way to the hole. The voice in my head says: “Does it get any better than this?”

There will be those who say “The Duel in the Sun” between Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson was better than Stenson versus Mickelson. I have a hard time believing that. Stenson’s Open victory over Mickelson is for me the greatest head-to-head battle ever played in a major golf championship. It was all the more poignant because Stenson became the first Swedish male to win a major.

I was fortunate enough to witness it. A month later, I saw Rose make Olympic history.

Those were the two highlights of my golfing year and also the two highlights of my golfing career.

I feel fortunate to have had a ringside seat for both.

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