KAWAGOE, Japan – Ultimately, the Olympic spirit won.
It wasn’t a runaway. There were plenty of tense moments when the easiest thing to do was nothing at all. From the outset, these Games were tested – a global pandemic, a tropical storm, oppressive heat that made Memphis in August feel like sweet relief. But eventually, sport took over and delivered.
The COVID-19 pandemic might have delayed the Games a year and Tropical Storm Mirinae certainly caused its share of handwringing, along with a nervy delay on Saturday, but inevitably the competition had the final say.
Not only was Saturday’s finish at these Games compelling, it was the stuff of storybooks. As entertaining as the men were last week – and they were plenty entertaining – the women delivered a frenzied final round with the outcome very much in doubt until the final hole.
The day didn’t start that way. With Mirinae bearing down on Japan and officials scrambling to finish 72 holes, Nelly Korda started the final round with a three-shot lead and birdied the second hole to send a message.
She wasn’t making any mistakes, at least none that couldn’t be glossed over with her impressive brand of power golf. She wasn’t making any mistakes, until she did.
“I was very frustrated with myself. I was not happy at all,” Korda said of her double bogey-5 at the seventh hole that dropped her into a tie for the lead. “I told myself there's still a lot of golf left, and I'm very proud of how I handled the next three holes or even just the entire round after that.”
Korda made three consecutive birdies, offset a bogey at the 11th with a birdie at the 13th, and when she arrived at the par-4 17th hole she was clinging to a one-stroke lead over Mone Inami as the skies over Kasumigaseki Country Club darkened.
Mirinae had arrived.
During a weather delay that lasted just under an hour, Korda tried to take her mind off the inevitable. She’d hit her tee shot short and right of the green at No. 17 and Inami, playing in the group ahead, had a birdie putt on the same hole.
“Obviously I was nervous, but during the rain delay I was just with my sister [fellow Olympian Jessica Korda], we were relaxing, kind of chit-chatting on the ground, in the clubhouse,” Korda said. “That really helped a lot, just to kind of not think about it and just to kind of take a step away.”
When the players were rushed back onto the course following the weather delay, Korda was forced to play the role of interested bystander as Inami rolled in her birdie putt to tie for the lead.
With seemingly countless scenarios in play, most of which included a playoff of some sort, Inami’s approach at the 18th hole came up short, buried in the face of a greenside bunker. She made bogey to drop her into a tie for second place with Lydia Ko.
Korda two-putted the final hole for a 17-under total and a one-stroke victory. Cue the Olympic medal song. Gold to Team USA for the second consecutive week. America’s final medal count exceeded 100 late Saturday in Tokyo, but a gold sweep in golf was worth noticing. This is, after all, the same team that needed a final-round 63 from Matt Kuchar at the ’16 Games just to keep from being shut out in Rio.
There, however, was still more on this dance card.
For the second consecutive week, a playoff was required to finalize the medal podium, although this week’s edition was a tad anticlimactic compared to men’s. Inami, who was carrying the hopes and dreams of the host nation, and Ko played just one extra hole, the par-4 18th. Inami won with a par for the silver medal while Ko, who became the first Olympic golfer to win multiple individual medals, took bronze.
It’s a testament to how the Games have altered outlooks that Ko, who won the silver medal at the 2016 Games, had no interest in the shade of distinctions. A spot on the podium is a spot on the podium.
“I don't think it feels that different,” she said when asked to distinguish her thoughts between 2016 and this year’s Games. “I wish I could have brought [home] a different color medal, but overall, just to bring the medal for New Zealand I hope everyone back home is proud.”
And then there was Inami.
Other than the South Korean men– who were playing for a medal to avoid mandatory military service – no one had more pressure on them than Hideki Matsuyama. The Masters champion could have put the finishing touches on a dream season by winning a medal at the Tokyo Games, but he lost in a seven-player playoff for bronze.
Now, fast-forward a week and there was no mistaking Inami’s status as the crowd favorite, however limited the crowd might have been by the pandemic.
There were times when these Games felt forlorn. The pandemic followed by the heat and, finally, Mirinae, which threatened to undermine everything golf has achieved in the Olympics. But the game preserved, flourished, even.
“I’m proud of golf,” said Annika Sorenstam, the president of the International Golf Federation. “What everybody has done to make this happen. This is only the second time and the Olympics has a long history. To come so far already and establish ourselves. Golf showcases so many different things that other sports like to be. We’re role models in lots of ways, the way these players handle themselves, the way the sport goes about things, I’m proud of it.”
For all the obstacles, all the challenges, it won’t be the delays or the storms or the heat that define the Tokyo Games; it will be the performances and an Olympic spirit that eventually won.