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Olympic golf was supposed to be a nightmare. It was better than a dream.

With no money, construction problems, and players skipping the event entirely, Olympic golf was set up to be a failure. And then they arrived in Rio.

Golf - Olympics: Day 9 Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

RIO DE JANEIRO — Gil Hanse looks out at the thing he made and sips a Stella Artois. Five years ago, he looked at this place and saw an abandoned sand mine. Five minutes ago, he looked at the same place and saw two of the world’s top 10 golfers duel one another in a thrilling 1-hole battle for an Olympic gold medal.

"Sometimes," Hanse says, sipping his Stella and letting a smile crack across his face, "reality beats out the dream."

Most of the dreams about the first Olympic golf tournament since 1904 were actually nightmares. There were concerns about disease, security, a weakened field, the legitimacy of the event, potentially underwhelming crowds, and yes, there were concerns about the practicality and playability of the course Hanse designed.

But Sunday’s final round showed what golf can do for the Olympics — and perhaps, what the Olympics can do for golf.

* * *

There was worry that golfers, who already have big money-earning events every weekend and important majors four times a year, might not be able to understand the importance of winning an Olympic medal.

But here’s a way to get a golfer interested in something. Tell them that if they win, they get to put on a jacket.

"We're all presented this podium jacket you get to put on. It's a cool outfit," Matt Kuchar said. "You see people in these other sports putting on that podium jacket and you think, you know what? I'd really like to have that jacket. I don't want to just have it as a keepsake to take home.I want to earn the right to wear that jacket."

Kuchar entered Sunday seven strokes back of the lead, but roared into third with a brilliant Sunday performance. Normally, that would make him Matt Kuchar, Guy Who Didn’t Win. In Rio, it made him Matt Kuchar, Bronze Medalist.

Caddies don’t normally cry after third place finishes, but Kuchar’s caddy, John Wood, teared up.

"This is the best third finish of all time," Wood said. At one point, he took a long, long pause to gather his emotions, struggling to find the breath and composure to get a sentence out. "This is my favorite part of caddying."

We expected to be underwhelmed by the Olympic golf tournament because of the large number of elite players who decided to pass on participating. The top five golfers in the Official World Golf Rankings before the event, Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, and Rory McIlroy all turned down the option to play in the Olympics. Many cited the Zika virus -- a bit odd, since all five are men without pregnant partners, and, well, the Zika virus mainly affects pregnant women — and some cited general safety concerns as well.

And there was one big thing they didn’t cite: Golfers play almost every weekend in events that have the opportunity to earn them very large sums of money. In Rio, the vast majority of golfers would get little more than a cool experience.

"If you finish fourth, you get nothing," said Wood. "In a tour event you get a lot of world ranking points, a lot of FedEx (Cup) points, and a pretty good check. Here, you finish fourth, nothing."

Luckily, the experience blew almost everybody away, including Wood. Caddies don’t cry much, and they certainly don’t cry a lot after third place finishes. But Wood kept welling up when asked to discuss the event.

After the string of drop-outs, Wood felt the need to deliver a message to his fellow caddies: "If they qualify, don’t let your man skip this event."

Bubba Watson reacts to his tee shot
Bubba Watson reacts to his tee shot.
Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

Bubba Watson was one of the people who technically got nothing, finishing in a tie for ninth place. But he won’t stop talking about how great of a time he had.

"This is one of the greatest golf trips I've ever been on," Watson said. "This is the absolute thrill of a lifetime."

When asked his favorite part, he doesn’t even have to think about it.

"I met Greg Louganis!" He’s beaming. "The guy’s a legend!"

Let’s take a step back here. Watson, perhaps more than any other mainstream athlete of the past 10 years, has openly affirmed his belief that homosexuality is a sin. Louganis is perhaps the most celebrated openly gay athlete in American history, a multiple time Olympic gold medalist who has frequently used his platform to advocate for LGBT rights and the rights of HIV positive people. But at the Olympics, this obvious, glaring tension between them apparently never came up.

Watson is clearly fascinated with every single one of the other athletes he meets. He runs down a list of the other athletes he’s been able to hang with — field hockey and table tennis players, rowers and boxers. He’s intrigued by the intricacies of what they do -- their strategies, their training methods.

He knows that he’s the famous one. He can’t remember all the names of the people he’s met, and he knows they know Bubba Watson. He knows he’ll be in big events almost every weekend and clear $5 million in winnings this year, and he knows many of these athletes won’t appear on TV again until 2020. And that seems to put things in perspective for him.

"We should never complain again," Watson says. "We're so blessed. We look at these athletes who train for years — not just hours, years — and they got 30 seconds, a minute, under 10 seconds."

Golf can be insular — Do you realize Phil Mickelson isn’t on ads on regular TV? Do you realize he’s on every single ad during every single golf event? Here, golfers opened their eyes and looked at the world of sports, and the world of sports looked back.

"I get the Masters for the rest of my life, but it's just golf. There are no other sports," Watson says. "This is the greatest sporting event I've ever been a part of."

* * *

Adilson Da Silva began playing golf by cutting tree branches into makeshift clubs.

"Sometimes it would break if the wood was too soft," Da Silva told Golfweek.

Da Silva is Brazil’s best golfer, and as the host nation, Brazil got to send its best golfer to the Olympic tournament. But Da Silva isn’t normally the type of golfer you’d expect in an elite event — he’s ranked 288th in the world, and typically plays in the Sunshine Tour in southern Africa.

Brazil is not a golf nation. It has 107 golf courses for more than 200 million people. Of those, only 25,000 were registered as golfers. But with the new addition of the sport to the Olympics, they’d have to host a tournament.

Nothing about this seemed to be going well. It started with the questionable decision to build a new golf course rather than using one of Rio de Janeiro’s two existing private courses. Brazil is near monetary ruin, and the multi-billion dollar cost of hosting the Olympics has added to the toll.

Why did they need to build a new course? Would anybody in Rio ever use a third golf course? Was the decision influenced by the fact that billionaire Pasquale Mauro — a friend of many of the people responsible for the Olympics happening — owned the land on which the course would be built?

And building the course hit about a billion snags. Its environmental credentials were criticized. At one point, it was more than a year behind schedule.

And when it finally existed, people weren’t sure it would be that good of a course. Many feared the course was too easy, and would lead to ridiculously low scores. And being built entirely on sand, with extremely hot weather, and no time to really test the course, some feared balls would roll infinitely.

Grandstands on the 18th hole in Rio.

But after 72 holes, the course received glowing reviews. Bubba Watson called it "a masterpiece," and caddies praised the way it necessitated innovation.

"The funnest thing you want as a caddy and a player is interest. You want a lot of options," said Wood. "There are a lot of options out there how to play the course. A lot of figuring stuff out. So many times you fly to a certain place and it stops. Here you've got to judge rolls, bounces, angles. It's a very interesting, fun course to play."

After the round, Justin Rose’s caddy Mark Fulcher sees Hanse and goes over to congratulate him on a course well built.

Behind the 18th green are a series of half-constructed condos built by Mauro, meaning the course finishes into a view of cranes. Ignore them, and look left. Over there, the mountains of Rio rise, and you realize you’re golfing in a fascinating, beautiful country, and not merely some mega-rich developer’s fantasy world.

As the medal-winners gather to take pictures near the Olympic rings by the ninth hole, the sun is nestling itself amongst the hills, bathing the course in a glorious orange.

Was it a good idea to build a third golf course in Rio just for the sake of the Olympics? I mean, probably not. Golf is expensive. Brazil is in the midst of a historically bad financial crisis. Even the well-off might not have golf money nowadays.

But the final round shows that there is some golf passion in Brazil. People are out on the course, wrapped in flags -- most Brazilian, but at least a two for local Brazilian soccer teams — and they’re cheering Da Silva on. They’re screaming "BOM BOLA ADILSON!" with his every tee shot.

"I feel like we're in a major," says Da Silva, who has participated in the British Open three times, but never finished better than 69th. "Normally, you don't get so much attention, especially on the golf course when you're not doing too good. People are going to go the other way."

He finishes 3-over, tied for 39th in a 60-person field. The crowd doesn’t seem to mind. His final putt drops on 18, and someone sprints out to hand him a Brazilian flag. The crowd cheers: "A-DIL-SON! A-DIL-SON!"

Not a bad moment for a guy who grew up using tree branches for clubs.

* * *

Justin Rose surrounded by fans on the 18th hole.

The athletes buy into the Olympic thing. Justin Rose’s inspiration was a picture of Michael Phelps — if you’ve been on Twitter in the past week, you’ve seen it.

"It was an image we worked all week, just pushing forward, swimming to the line," said Fulcher. "Don't look to the right, don't look to the left. Left of us was possibly the best golfer in the world, so we just had to swim forward."

Rose and Henrik Stenson are neck-and-neck for the entirety of the final day, and enter the 18th green tied at 15-under. They’ve withstood the run from Kuchar, and now it’s between the two of them. One will get a gold medal, the other silver.

There are no viewpoints of the green. The grandstand is full, with security guards keeping out an anxious, long line attempting to get in. The ring around the 18th green is full, going back 75 yards. The best place to watch is from a walkway meant to provide a viewing area of the first tee, about 100 yards from the green. I "watch" from behind a broadcast tower, shoving my phone as far out into an area with an actual sightline as I possibly can in hopes of capturing the final putts.

Rose outpitches Stenson, dropping his third shot within six feet of the cup. Stenson’s wedge leaves him 25 feet from the hole, and he three-putts.

Rose is the gold medalist, and Stenson is happy with silver. As the two laugh in a press conference, Rose turns to Stenson and mimics Phelps — he takes a little air-breaststroke, then pretends to outtouch Stenson at the wall.

The Olympic golf tournament had everything the organizers could’ve wanted. Flag-wearing, partisan crowds, excited golfers convinced their tournament was meaningful, and a superbly played tournament that finished with a shootout for gold.

But now the question turns to the future. Golf will be included in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but after that, there is no guarantee the sport will remain a part of the Olympic program.

So is it worth it? The golfers seem to think the past few days justify an Olympic future for the sport.

"Anybody making a decision going forward," says Rose, "I'll just ask them: Were you in Rio on Sunday?"

Some see golf as a huge potential asset to the Olympics. Golf can provide internationally prominent athletes, and if they show up and play, the results will speak for themselves.

"Bless the athletics, it looks great, but it's a half-empty stadium," says Fulcher. "There was nothing half-empty about this place today."

But some golfers see the Olympics as a huge potential asset to golf. The games expose golf to countries and audiences who otherwise wouldn’t care. And there is a special feeling the golfers have gotten from getting to be a part of the wider world of sports.

"I'm just a golfer," says Watson of being amongst the athletes in the Olympic village. "These are our great American champions, who have medals."

Then Watson pauses, and realizes something. "Like Matt Kuchar, I guess."

* * *

Why do Olympians bite their gold medals?