While the summer heat was something of a forgotten concern ahead of the Tokyo Olympics due to the pandemic, it definitely was noticeable last week during the men’s golf competition and became a real-life factor Wednesday as the women’s tournament got underway at Kasumigaseki Country Club.
Leader Madelene Sagstrom certainly didn’t experience the 41C/105.8F afternoon heat index in her home country of Sweden, but she did attend Louisiana State University, now lives in Orlando, Florida, and has played in even worse furnace-like conditions in Thailand and Singapore.
That said …
“I’m not going to lie, it’s very hot,” Sagstrom said after shooting 5-under-par 66 to take a one-stroke lead over world No. 1 Nelly Korda of the USA and Aditi Ashok of India. “But it’s manageable. I know I mean most of us have been in Asia, played a lot of golf over here so we know kind of what to do, you drink a lot of water you have cooling towels, umbrellas, kind of just maintaining the energy and not go crazy. I think at this point it’s harder for the caddies than it is for the players, so it’s more about making sure they’re staying upright.”
Which, in fact, has been a problem.
On Tuesday, U.S. Women’s Open champion Yuka Saso had to replace her caddie due to the heat. And today, American Lexi Thompson lost her regular caddie, Jack Fughum, on the 15th hole and had team manager Donna Wilkins step in to finish the round. “I was so worried about him and, I mean, it’s so hot out there,” Thompson said after a difficult round of 73. “I’m from Florida and I’m still not used to that bad of heat. I just hope that he’s okay and he gets the hydration he needs, the nutrients tonight to go into the next few days. If not, I’ll figure something else out. I just want him to be healthy.”
Korda is another Floridian who is used to hot playing conditions, but after her round, she admitted to being light-headed a couple of times when teeing up her ball. “I think the mental aspect of it is probably the hardest just because you have to keep yourself hydrated and you kind of lose it a little out there,” she said. “But I kept myself in it, made sure I drank a lot of electrolytes, too.”
So Wednesday, in part, became a matter of survival, with Sagstrom coming away as the leader after a clean five-birdie, bogey-free round.
“I would say mostly my short game was kind of my savior,” she said. “I was striking the ball all right but not great, so having a strong short game and just giving myself the chances, like solid par chances was kind of the key of my round today.”
Sagstrom then echoed a consistent Olympic golf theme by praising the East Course and its condition. “This course is beautiful,” she said. “The condition of it has been perfect from the start. I like long golf courses in general and it fits my game really well, so very excited with the layout, it suits my eye and the greens are rolling phenomenal which works with my putting too. So, it’s phenomenal.”
Korda, meanwhile, after parring the first hole, went bogey-birdie-bogey before birdieing three of the next four holes, then played consistently on the back with two more birdies. “I’m hoping I’m in total control,” she said. “I kind of sprayed some shots out to the right on my last two holes with my irons, but you’re going to have that, you’re going to lose a little bit of concentration, but I’m going to go to the range after, after I cool off inside for a bit and then try and work on it.”
After Korda finished, Ashok came in with a chance to finish at 5-under by herself but bogeyed the final hole.
“I think I played better than I expected today because I had a lot of hybrids into the greens, so I didn’t really expect to be like 5-under through 17,” said Ashok, a returning Olympian who was the youngest golfer five years ago in Rio at age 18. “But, yeah, I kind of holed some putts and holed important par putts as well which kept the momentum. So, yeah, it was a good day.”
Another stroke back at 3-under 68 are Matilda Castren of Finland, Jin Young Ko of Korea and Carlota Ciganda of Spain. They are followed by nine players at 69, including returning gold medalist Inbee Park and teammate Sei Young Kim of Korea.
There’s also Wei-Ling Hsu of Chinese Taipei, who settled at 69 after taking the early lead with birdies on five of the first six holes … perhaps inspired by the outstanding performance of compatriot C.T. Pan on Sunday. She helped celebrate after Pan recovered from an opening 74, shot a closing 63 to make a seven-way playoff for the bronze, then emerged as the last man standing against the likes of Japan’s national golf hero Hideki Matsuyama, Ireland’s Rory McIlroy and American Collin Morikawa, who was the last to fall. As the world’s 208th-ranked player at the time, Pan outlasted these three players who have combined for seven major championship titles, including two this year. Once Pan beat Morikawa with a par at the 18th hole, Hsu was among several who rushed the green and doused Pan with water.
“That was amazing, what C.T. did,” Hsu said. “I was practicing here on Thursday and I think he shot like 3-over (on Thursday) and he is just amazing. He kept making birdies and in the playoff with seven people, he played another four holes. I was able to be in there to watch him and recognize that someone from Chinese Taipei was able make a bronze medal in front of me. I was able to watch the ceremony and I was tearing in my eyes. I was so touched. It was just incredible. It’s so touching every time someone wins a medal which is an inspiration to me.”
Now the field returns to Kasumigaseki Thursday for another day of sweltering heat, another day of hydration, electrolytes and survival, and a clear vision of what’s at stake.
Japan’s women hope to deliver medals for their home country
The performance of Japanese star Hideki Matsuyama was inspiring, if not disappointing. Weighted by the combination of the golf-crazed host nation and his drained endurance due to a recent bout with COVID-19, Matsuyama hung near the top of the leaderboard and battled his way into a 7-way playoff for bronze, only to fall short of the bronze medal. He had chances to change the narrative throughout Sunday despite his low stamina, but missed several makeable putts down the stretch.
Nonetheless, two of his biggest supporters, Team Japan’s Nasa Hataoka and Mone Inami, were inspired by his performance, with Hataoka being onsite to follow him over the weekend at Kasumigaseki Country Club. They now hope to use that to spur them on when the women’s tournament begins Wednesday at Kasumigaseki Country Club. “It was extremely inspiring to watch him trying to go get the medal until the last second,” Hataoka said. “So, we will try to win the medal on the girls’ side.”
Both got off to a solid enough start Wednesday by shooting 1-under-par 70.
Inami arrived late Sunday and had a brief chat with Matsuyama about the course conditions and differences on the East Course since the last time she played it. “He also mentioned that because he couldn’t win the medal on the guys’ side, he sent me a good luck message on the girls’ side,” said Inami, who had the honor of opening the women’s competition Wednesday with the first tee shot.
Both certainly have the pedigree to challenge this week, and not just because of their familiarity with the East Course.
Hataoka, No. 11 in the world, is coming off a victory at the Marathon LPGA Classic, her first win on the LPGA in two years, coming several weeks after nearly winning the U.S. Women’s Open before losing in a playoff to Yuka Saso of the Phillipines. Inami, meanwhile, has five victories and seven other top-10s this year on the Japan LPGA.
Both say they were inspired by Matsuyama’s gutsy performance for their home country.
“I watched a lot of the Japanese athletes win the gold medals and it’s been very inspiring,” Hataoka said. “I hope we can do the same in the women’s golf.”
“I’m not really feeling the pressure,” Inami said, “but I’m more focused on having fun and hopefully I can deliver my best performance and play well out here.”
Don’t mess with Mexico …
Carlos Ortiz of Mexico said he had a blast staying in the Olympic Village last week, and part of the unique experience was staying with several Mexican boxers and their coaches. Now that it’s the women’s turn at Kasumigaseki Country Club, Olympians Gaby Lopez and Maria Fassi were asked about their rooming situation in the Village. The exchange went thusly:
“Yeah, we got weightlifters and boxers, too,” Fassi said.
“We got boxers,” Lopez emphasized.
“And a couple girls from rowing, I think,” Fassi continued. “So we’re protected as well.”
“Yeah, we’re the little girls,” Lopez added.
“Yeah, don’t mess with the Mexican team this week,” Fassi warned with a laugh.
Korda sisters felt the nerves as Xander Schauffele closed out his golden victory
The Korda sisters took time to follow fellow USA Olympian Xander Schauffele for the final holes of his gold medal performance Sunday. And it was nervous for both of them, particularly when he had to lay up from the rough on the final hole before saving par with a brilliant wedge shot to four feet.
“Definitely for me I was nervous on 18 when he pushed his tee shot out to the right and had to lay up,” said world No. 1 Nelly Korda. “But what a clutch pitch shot into 18 and making that putt. Especially with how well the guy in second played,” referring to Slovakian representative Rory Sabbatini, who put pressure on Schauffele with an Olympic record 10-under-par 61.
“Yeah, my Whoop registered an activity in like the last hole,” added Jessica Korda, referring to an elevated heart rate. “So I think we’re really feeling it for him and like Nelly says, it was just so clutch coming down the stretch and that last hole and with the putt and everything that it’s bigger than us and, than golf. So, it was just really cool.”
Nelly got off to a strong start with a 67 and tie for second, while Jessica shot par 71.
A very special moment in an outstanding career
Shanshan Feng of China has compiled more than 20 victories over the past decade, including one major championship. But the third place finish she earned five years ago in the Rio Olympics remains a favorite moment in her outstanding career.
And while other trophies are on display in her home, the bronze medal is tucked away in a safe, removed upon special request from visitors.
“Because it’s small enough, it’s staying in a safe itself,” she said. “It’s not put with the other trophies. When I have friends coming over, if they want to take a look at it, yes, I would show them the medal.”
Just how special is it?
“Out of all of my achievements, I would say a medal at the Olympics is very special because even though I have been a major winner … we have five majors every year, we have in four years 20 chances to win a major. So, I would say it’s harder, much harder to get a medal at the Olympics. So it was, of course, my one of what do you call that? I mean, like the most important or memorized moment in my career, I would say that.”
Feng struggled Wednesday in her return, shooting 3-over 74.
And then there was silver medalist Lydia Ko …
Unlike Feng, 2016 silver medalist Lydia Ko actually isn’t sure where her medal is. “I honestly think it’s in my dad’s wardrobe,” said the New Zealander, who shot 1-under 70 Wednesday. “I think he’s seen it more than me. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it.”
Not that it still isn’t special to her, and she’s relishing a return trip to the Olympics. “I always say that technically the silver medal, I came second to Inbee (Park), but it’s probably the most prestigious and honorable silverware that I’ve got … and no matter if you end up standing on the podium at the end of Saturday or not, just being here and to be able to represent your country and to say that you’re an Olympian, a select few athletes are able to say that. So I think we’re all champions just being here, so I’m just trying to enjoy and be grateful for my second opportunity at the Olympics.”
She then recalled an amusing realization when she was traveling back with the medal.
“I remember I think I was traveling from Rio to Canada, because the Canadian Open was the week after and I left it in my carry on and I think it beeped because, you know, it was obviously a hefty-size medal and you could see in the X ray it was like a perfect circle with what looks like a lanyard almost. And I was like, yeah, that’s the silver medal, which was like a very kind of cool moment. Obviously clearly it’s a perfect circle, that’s my silver medal. I’m normally, I think, not the type to say, hey, like this is what I got, but the Olympics is so special, ever since they announced that in 2016 golf was going to be back in the Olympics in over a hundred years, I knew that I wanted to make the team. I’m always proud to represent New Zealand on a daily basis when we’re playing on Tour and to be able to do that at the Olympics, alongside the best athletes, it’s a pretty surreal experience and I know that it was such an honorable moment.”
Ko also recalls when the last putt dropped to clinch the medal. “I was like a whole array of emotions going through me,” she said. “I thought I was going to cry, but then I saw to my right and Inbee was not crying and she was the gold medalist. I was like, I don’t know if the silver medalist deserves to cry when the gold medalist is like totally fine. So, I think I held back my tears then. But I think it was very meaningful, not for myself only, but for my team and my family and everyone that’s kind of walked through this journey with me to be there and make me be the person that I was at that point.”