RIO DE JANEIRO – From the top step of the podium, Justin Rose bowed his head as the Olympic gold medal was placed around his neck, and he stared at it for the longest time.
Even for a major champion, this was more than he ever imagined.
“It’s a moment you’ve seen in many other sports,” Rose said. “The medal ceremony is what it’s all about, really.”
This was why the 36-year-old Englishman circled the Rio Games on his calendar all along, even as some of the biggest names in golf began pulling out. Rose came to Rio to watch, and to win.
And when his turn came Sunday, he delivered a gold-medal performance worthy of a 112-year wait.
The final round was so tense that no one led by more than one shot until Rose hit a 40-yard pitch to 3 feet, a shot every bit as significant as the 4-iron from 229 yards on the 18th hole at Merion when he won the 2013 U.S. Open.
The birdie gave him a 4-under 67 and a two-shot victory over Henrik Stenson to win golf’s first gold medal since 1904 in St. Louis.
Matt Kuchar of the United States closed with a 63 to win the bronze.
How big was golf in the Olympics?
“I’ve never been so happy with a third-place finish in my life,” Kuchar said.
And then there was Rose.
As the final putt fell into the cup, he thrust his fist into the air and popped the British crest on his shirt before turning to embrace Stenson. He raised both arms, pumped his fist again and took a bow.
“The reality is incredible. The reality hasn’t sunk in,” Rose said. “The whole week, I’ve been so focused. I’ve been so into it. I’ve been up for it. I’ve been just so determined, I suppose, to represent Team GB as best as I could. And it was just the most magical week.”
Stenson already faced one duel this summer at Royal Troon to win the British Open with the lowest score in major championship history. Deep in the round, the Swede said his spine locked up on him. He was stretching on all fours on the 13th and a physiotherapist worked on him at the 14th, where a poor chip cost him the lead. Stenson kept firing away, however, tying Rose with a pitch to 4 feet for birdie on the 16th.
They were tied coming to the final hole, fans lining both sides of the fairway, exactly the moment and atmosphere golf needed to make a good impression on the International Olympic Committee.
Stenson’s pitch from 50 yards came up short, just over 20 feet away, and then Rose delivered what amounted to the winner. Knowing that Rose was in tight for birdie, Stenson rammed his birdie putt some 7 feet by the cup and missed the par putt, giving him a 3-under 68.
“He made a birdie and I didn’t, and that’s why he’s got a gold medal and I got a silver,” Stenson said.
It’s not nearly as valuable as his silver claret jug from Royal Troon, but still special.
“We said that all along in the Olympics, you’ve got some pretty good consolation prizes,” Stenson said.
Rose is the first gold medalist in golf since George Lyon of Canada won against a field of mostly Americans.
Golf organizations lobbied hard to get the sport back into the Olympics, only for some of the biggest stars – including the top four in the world – to withdraw in the month leading up to the Rio Games for reasons that ranged from fears over the Zika virus to security.
Padraig Harrington referred to them as “sheep” for following each other out of Olympics. The 60 players who came, dressed in their country colors and team bags – and three medals at the end of the week – showed what the absentees were missing.
“This is one of the greatest golf trips I’ve ever been on,” said Bubba Watson, who had planned to stay in private housing until moving into the Olympic Village on Tuesday because he didn’t want to miss out on the experience.
Even better was seeing a teammate make his way to the medal stand.
“We’re asked to play for our country and he pulled us through today,” Watson said. “I’m so proud he got the bronze.”
The lasting memory of golf’s return was Rose and Stenson going toe-to-toe for more than five hours before a sellout crowd (capped at 12,000 tickets), neither with more than a one-stroke advantage until it was over. And there was Rose at the end, wildly pumping fists as British fans waved the Union Jack around the 18th green.
He won the U.S. Open at Merion three years ago. Rose said he always wanted his career to be remembered for multiple majors.
“But let’s just call it major champion and Olympic gold medalist,” Rose said. “I’d be a very, very happy man.”
Subscribe to The Spokesman-Review’s sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.