A wild ride puts Henrik Stenson in the mix at Olympic golf
RIO DE JANEIRO >> British Open champion Henrik Stenson is close enough to think about adding an Olympic gold medal to his silver claret jug.
It just required a long and wild route to get himself into contention on Friday.
Marcus Fraser of Australia got off to a quick start, stretched his lead to four shots at one point and wound up with a 2-under 69 for the 36-hole lead in the first Olympic golf competition since 1904. He had a one-shot lead over Thomas Pieters of Belgium, a former NCAA champion who closed with three straight birdies.
Still, it was the sight of Stenson on the leaderboard that was so hard to ignore.
Only a month ago, the 40-year-old Swede won his first major and got his name on the claret jug at Royal Troon with the lowest score in major championship history. On Friday, he had a 68 to go into the weekend at Olympic Golf Course just two shots behind and in the final group.
But this was hardly a masterpiece.
In the wind and a hard rain, Stenson had to hit 4-wood to reach the green on the second hole and made a 60-foot birdie putt. He hit into the water on the next hole and still had a full 4-wood just to reach the front part of the green. Stenson made a par putt from 108 feet.
"You're just standing there, praying for a two-putt bogey. Before I know it, it found the bottom of the cup," Stenson said. "That's the longest putt I've made in my career. First of all, it's hard to get a putt that long on any green in the world."
He followed by duffing a tee shot and making bogey, and it was a relief to play what he called ordinary golf until another wild finish.
Stenson had a three-putt bogey, followed by two birdies, and then a tee shot he missed so badly that it came up 30 yards short and into a bunker for a bogey on the par-3 17th. He finished his round with a delicate pitch from a drop area, but only after his caddie had to ask Brazilian fans in the bleachers around the 18th green to move 20 feet because their shadows were dancing around his golf ball.
"Three under is not a bad score out there, especially not with that first five or six holes in those conditions," Stenson said. "All in all, happy with that. I didn't play as solid as I did yesterday, but we're still in the race and still in good position halfway through the tournament."
None of these players grew up dreaming about an Olympic medal because golf hasn't been part of the games in 112 years. For someone like Stenson, the highest-ranked player in the 60-man field, consider this getting through the preliminary heats in a traditional Olympic sport.
Then again, not even he knows what to expect out of his game. No other Olympic sport has so many contenders.
"It's not like some of the other sports where if you jump a certain distance or swim at a certain time, you can pretty much figure out who is going to win and finish second and third," Stenson said earlier this week. "Ours is a bit more down to the form for the week and on any given day."
At the halfway point, Olympic golf was starting to take shape.
Fraser was at 10-under 132 — another day, another Olympic record. Of course, considering how long the sport has been absent, new marks get set every day. The Australian caught only a little of the nasty weather, and it didn't last long before the sun came out. Fraser built a four-shot lead until dropping two shots, including the reachable par-4 16th when it took two chips to reach the green.
Playing with Stenson on Saturday could be intimidating, through Fraser saw it a different way.
"Any time you play with Stenson on the weekend, you know you're doing something right."
Pieters made up a lot of ground in a hurry by driving just through the green on the 16th for a two-putt birdie from 75 feet, holing a 15-foot birdie on the 17th and then two-putting from just off the green on the par-5 18th.
Justin Rose of Britain and Gregory Bourdy of France each shot 69 and were four shots behind.
The Americans, the only country with four players, were still lingering. Matt Kuchar had a 70 and was seven shots behind, following by Bubba Watson (67) at 2-under 140 and Patrick Reed (69) nine shots back.
Rickie Fowler was still near the bottom. Even with actor Matthew McConaughey following along, Fowler made three bogeys on the back nine and had to settle for a 71, leaving him 14 shots out of the lead. Barring a low round Saturday, he likely will leave Rio with plenty of selfies, just no medals.