Punter’s pointers: The Olympic Men’s Golf Competition

Who will emulate Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson and Matt Kuchar in standing on the podium to collect Olympic medals this week?

Golf isn't supposed to be like this.

Normally, there is only one prize, not three.

There were plenty of doubters ahead of Rio 2016, when the sport returned to the Games, but most were won over.

Chasing gold, silver and bronze is, it turned out, quite cool.

Golfers are used to living in a bubble - it's a cosseted one, with plush country clubs, fancy hotels, posh cars, bags of presents, and buckets of cash.

But throw them in a cafeteria full of folk who've scrapped and scraped for four years, and they rather like it.

There's absolutely no doubt that the field is top heavy, but who has the extra incentive? Who might the course suit? Who might find himself in an unexpected sweet spot?

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Let's take a look.

The favourite

When Jon Rahm was forced out of a second tournament in two months following a positive Covid test, favouritism passed over to Collin Morikawa.

What's not to like about the state of this extraordinary 24-year-old's game?

In the last year and a bit he has claimed a second regular PGA Tour title, the PGA Championship, a first World Golf Championship title, and then the Open.

He's responded to suggestions that his putting is a weak link by improving it, when taunted that he didn't hit the ball far enough he drove a par-4 en route to Major success, and he laughed in the face of having limited linksland experience when lifting the Claret Jug.

He also has Japanese heritage. "That means an extra sense of pride," he said following his second Major win. "Having history a long time ago there, I'll be wearing red, white and blue, but I'll feel real pride being back.

"And the Olympics only happens every four years instead of four times a year. That puts it on a pedestal."

The enigma

Rory McIlroy is often a victim of his own thoughtfulness.

Honest and open with the press, he'll give his opinions on many subjects. That prompts headlines.

He will also continue to consider those same subjects as time goes by and is intelligent enough to change his mind. That prompts more headlines.

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He was initially wary of the Olympics and opted not to travel in 2016. Then he changed his mind.

But, in doing, so he faced a problem. He's Northern Irish, but he played golf for Ireland because the sport's amateur scene is governed as one on the island, a little like rugby union.

Whichever team he opted to play for he would be offending the other.

So stress is built into his week and little wonder he is a rarity among the athletes in Tokyo in saying: "I'm not a very patriotic guy." Of course he isn't: patriotism in his world is a load of nutters he's never met spitting bile and fury at him via social media.

It's a funny old world, though.

In an event where everyone is pumped about playing for the flag, in a year when McIlroy has struggled to find his best, perhaps it wouldn't be too surprising if paradoxically he was the one who thrived?

He's also talked of expecting this week to be free of external influences due to various Covid protocols. But many golfers have already expressed their excitement at being at sport's biggest party.

It would be very Rory to have doubted he'd feel that frisson of excitement - and then find himself fuelled by it.

The Alison effect

Kasumigaseki Country Club's East Course, the host this week, was built in the 1920s by Charles Alison, a partner of the great Harry Colt who designed Wentworth's West Course (host of the BMW PGA Championship).

Alison is also responsible for Huntingdale, one of the great Melbourne sandbelt courses, and this week's track is laid out along similar lines.

Back in 2006 the Aussie Paul Sheehan won the Japan Open at Kasumigaseki. He plays his golf at home on the Melbourne sandbelt, and two of his wins down under came on those types of tracks.

And when the Presidents Cup was held at Royal Melbourne in 2019 Mexico's Abraham Ancer loved the place.

He scored 3.5 points from 4 in the pairs matches and then it needed a fired up Tiger Woods to play 16 holes in 7-under to defeat him in the singles.

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Extra incentive

For many, the goal this week is the podium - and ideally the top spot on it.

But for Korea's Sungae Im and Si-Woo Kim there is an added prize: win a medal and they will no longer need to complete 20 months of national service.

Indeed, the pair are so focussed on that task they opted not to play the Open earlier this month.

Should they not earn their reprieve they need to start their service before their 28th birthday - Kim is 26, Im 23. They are very aware that other golfers have been successful on the PGA Tour before national service and less successful after it. The clock is ticking.

There is a risk that the following words have been lost in translation, but Im has said: "If I make a pledge for this Olympics, I will treat this opportunity as if it is the last chance. My goal is to do my best and to think this is an opportunity that will not come again."

With two full seasons on the Japan Tour and third place in the PGA Tour's Zozo Championship in the country in 2019, Im can feel confident of his chances this week.

The big question is will that extra pressure inhibit his performance rather than enhance it?

Well-suited

Form in Japan? Shane Lowry has made three visits to the country, twice finishing third at the Dunlop Phoenix Tournament, and then adding T13th in the 2019 Zozo Championship.

Traditional, tree-lined tests? He loves those two. In fact, he adores the Colt-designed Wentworth. He's played it 11 times and has eight top 15 finishes, including four top sixes.

He's also very excited about his form in the big events and, this year alone, has a personal best at the Masters (T21st), tied fourth in the PGA Championship, and T12th when defending the Open.

The Cut-Making Machine

South Africa's Christiaan Bezuidenhout has played four rounds of golf in every strokeplay event he has played since teeing it up in the BMW PGA Championship last October.

Only two of them had no cut and it's a run that includes five Majors (six of you rank THE PLAYERS Championship that highly).

There's more to him than that alone: he's finished second at Glendower (an Alison design) and third at Wentworth (Colt).

READ MORE: What they're saying about the Olympics: The golfing goal is gold

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