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Tokyo experience different from Rio, but nothing compares to being an Olympian

John Wood, Matt Kuchar
John Wood

I was caddieing for Matt Kuchar when he qualified for the Olympics in 2016.

Like many PGA Tour players that year, there was quite a bit of trepidation about heading to Rio to compete during the busy summer schedule. There was the competitive angle: We had the PGA in August, followed by the FedExCup playoffs and the Ryder Cup. But then also throw in the virus of THAT year – Zika – and the unknown aspect of golf in the Olympics for the first time since 1904, and there was a lot to consider.

I had a conversation with Matt and his agent, Mark Steinberg, bringing up those scheduling concerns. Matt was having a terrific year and looked to be in a great place heading into the playoffs and Ryder Cup, and I questioned whether adding a trip to Rio for an unknown was a smart choice. Thankfully – as has happened many times in my caddie career – my player disagreed with me, and he was right. Matt was 100% committed the moment he qualified.

How Matt even made it in was a bit of a miracle. A country could send a maximum of four players, provided they all were among the top 15 in the Official World Golf Ranking. At the final qualifying event, the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Akron, Matt chipped in for birdie on the 16th hole and then birdied the last to move into a tie for third. Little did we know at the time, that finish gave Matt just enough world-ranking points to move to No. 15 in the OWGR.

Still, we needed more help in making the Olympics.

There were quite a few players from the United States ahead of us, and we would need some to decline the invitation to make the team.

First, Dustin Johnson withdrew.

Then, Jordan Spieth.

Suddenly, Matt was in, along with Patrick Reed, Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler.

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Personally, I was still a bit unsure of the decision ... and then we went to the uniform fitting at the PGA Championship. The second I walked into that room and realized that we would be wearing “United States Olympic Team” and the official Olympics logo on our chests, sleeves and hats, I got goosebumps. (Writing this story five years later, they’ve returned.)

From that point forward, the entire Olympics experience was like moving from one unforgettable moment to another. The days were filled with them: Touching down with our Team USA luggage with Bubba and Patrick and their caddies (Rickie was already there); getting dressed for the first practice rounds with our teammates; walking around the Olympic Village. It was all unbelievable, really.

(Side note: If you’re 46 years old, a little round, and your greatest athletic achievement was being named MVP of your little league at age 12, walking around the Olympic Village is both awe-inspiring and a huge hit to the ego. I found myself thinking, They must think I stole this uniform as I was mopping the floors and taking out the trash from the athletic dorms.)

Anyway, the competition itself felt very much like a normal PGA Tour event, and the preparation was much the same: learning the course, discussing strategy, fine-tuning the swing and figuring out what it would take to play well at a course no one had seen before.

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Then came Sunday, the final round.

Matt had been playing well but not spectacularly, and I believe we were somewhere around 10th place entering the final round. As a caddie, you’re always trying to find ways to inspire or motivate your player; it’s an essential part of the job. That morning, as we were warming up on the range, I said to Matt: “You know what’s great about today?”

“What’s that?” he said.

“Fourth place is the exact same thing as 65th," I told him. "They are only paying out three spots this week, so there’s no reason not to go for everything today. It’ll be an easy day as far as strategy goes. Go for everything.”

He smiled and said: “That’s right!”

Matt went on to play one of the best rounds of his life, shooting 63 (the low round of the week) and climbing the leaderboard like a rocket. With three holes to play, he realistically had a chance to win not just a medal, but maybe even a silver or gold. After driving the par-4 16th, he unfortunately three-putted from about 75 feet, then didn’t birdie the par-5 18th, leaving his putt on the front edge, a revolution from toppling in. It was one of those days you treat like a pitcher in the midst of a no-hitter: Don’t say anything about it, just keep doing what you’ve been doing.

I don’t know if Matt knew exactly where he was when he finished, but I did. I knew that round put Matt comfortably in third place, four shots clear of fourth, and he would be on the podium, receiving a bronze medal for the United States.

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I’m a crier by nature: Ryder Cups, baseball movies, injured animals, they all get me. But professionally, achieving something for your country, with no money involved, puts me over the top like nothing else. I think if you asked teammates from past Ryder Cups and Presidents Cups, I probably want it too badly, that it probably means too much to me, especially as just a caddie. But I’d rather have it that way than the opposite. Not caring unless there was money attached to the end of the week? No way.

As we walked off the 18th, Matt realized what had just happened. We embraced – first the bro handshake, followed by a big hug. And then I saw Matt’s wife, Sybi, waiting behind the green. He walked up to her with a massive smile and said, “I’ve never been so happy to finish third in my life.” The feeling, honestly, wasn’t that different than winning a tournament.

First cry.

After Matt signed his scorecard, he went to do his media duties, and a few reporters I knew asked me about the day and what it meant. That really hit me hard and I realized what we’d accomplished.

Second cry.

Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson were in the final group, a few groups behind us, and they held onto their positions and claimed the gold and silver, respectively. Incredible playing, and incredible week for both of them. But when they finished, it was official. I embraced Fooch (Mark Fulcher), Justin’s caddie, and Lordy (Gareth Lord), Henrik’s caddie, as they walked off the 18th, congratulating them both. The organizers immediately went to work building the podium on the 18th green for the medal ceremony.

Third cry.

I remember there was a really cool jacket given out to all U.S. team members that was strictly for wearing on the podium. No medal? Then you don’t get to wear the jacket at the Games. We had watched men’s doubles tennis the night before, where Steve Johnson and Jack Sock defeated the Canadian team to take bronze. We were watching with the U.S. coach, Jay Berger (also Daniel’s father), and when the final point was won, Steve and Jack came over and yelled to each other, “We get to wear the jacket!!!” Sunday, as Justin and Henrik walked off the 18th, Matt looked at me and said the same thing: “I get to wear the jacket!!!”  With a huge smile on my face, I said, “I know – and you’re buying me one, too!!!” It hangs in a prominent place in my house and only comes out on special occasions.

Fourth cry.

I watched Justin, Henrik and Matt climb the podium to receive their medals, all smiling from ear to ear, and listened to “God Save The Queen” (though I prefer The Sex Pistols’ version).

Fifth cry.

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I went to the locker room and packed up Matt’s travel bag, reveling in the week. Not just the great play and the bronze medal for Matt, but the entire Olympics experience. After finishing the practice and tournament rounds each day, we’d say, “OK, what events can we go to tonight?!” We took it all in: table tennis, badminton, boxing, weightlifting, basketball, watching Michael Phelps win two golds in the pool. I was dying to see the U.S. women’s soccer team (LOVE THAT TEAM) play a match, but unfortunately that never worked out with our schedules. I loved walking around the Olympic Village. I loved watching other U.S. athletes come out to watch golf. I loved hanging around with Patrick and Bubba and Rickie and their caddies. It all went by so fast, but it was all so special.

About a half hour after the medal ceremony, Matt came and found me.

“Hey, can you come out to the 18th green with me for a minute?” he asked. “I need you to do something for me.” I figured he wanted one last picture with Sybi and Steinberg and myself, something like that. But when I got there, I could tell that wasn’t the plan.

There was an official from the U.S. Olympic Committee there with a blue velvet box, along with Sybi and Mark. She started speaking, and I immediately knew what was happening. Caddies (and coaches, for that matter) don’t receive medals, and rightly so. We aren’t the story. We aren’t the athletes. But the USOC has something called the Order of Ikkos medal, which is presented to one person chosen by the athlete, should they medal.  Someone who was an essential part of getting the athlete onto the podium. She described the meaning of it, and its purpose, and Matt opened the box and draped the medal around my neck.

John Wood medal
John Wood

Sixth – and by far the biggest – cry.

For the players who decided to make the trip to Tokyo this year, I’m heartbroken for them that they won’t get to play in front of fans or attend other events. Attending those other competitions truly made it feel like you were a part of something bigger than a golf tournament. I know it’s corny as hell, but it was at those events, in person or on TV, when you watched Phelps, Katie Ledecky, Simone Biles, Sue Bird, Kevin Durant, Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and so many more and think, Yeah, I’m on Sue Bird’s team this week. A reach, I know, but essentially true. Hopefully that won’t diminish their experience too much. Hopefully, they will still get the same feeling I had, realizing you were competing for your country, in the Olympics.

For the players who decided not to go, well, I wish I could’ve had five minutes with them. I wouldn’t need much time, but I would tell them a lot of what I just wrote.

And I would end by saying this: You’re going to play in the Masters 25 times; the U.S. Open, Open Championship, PGA Championship the same.

You’re going to play in the FedExCup playoffs every year you’re on Tour.

You’re going to play hundreds and hundreds of other tournaments.

But, if you’re extremely lucky, you’ll have one chance to be a member of the United States Olympic Team. One. You don’t know how good you’ll be four years from now. You don’t know, for sure, that you’ll qualify. So don’t miss it.

Because when it’s all said and done, and you’re on the PGA Tour Champions or at home with your grandkids, you’ll want to be able to say that you were once an Olympian.