Justin Thomas has won a Major, played in Ryder Cups and Presidents Cups and been world No 1, but he said on Wednesday that the Tokyo Olympics is “the coolest thing I have ever been part of”.
The American is revelling in his first Olympic experience and has spent time at the Athletes Village where he has been hanging out with the USA basketball team, packed with NBA stars, before starting his quest for gold on Thursday morning at Kasumigaseki Country Club.
“Going to the Village and checking out the USA building, walking through, it’s just so hard to explain,” said the current world No 4.
“I really do truly think that, Ryder Cups, Majors, whatever it is, this is the coolest thing I’ve ever been a part of.”
Golf only returned to the Olympics in 2016 after more than a century’s absence, and critics say that an individual sport where protagonists play for millions of dollars every week should have no part in the Games.
But try telling that to Thomas, who said the adrenalin began to pump as soon as he clapped eyes on his Team USA kit and the magnitude of the Olympics started to dawn on him.
“I think it started to really hit me when I first got here, when I got in the room and saw all the gear,” he said.
“I’ve been wearing a lot of it this week. T-shirts, shorts, shoes, just anything that has that Team USA and that Olympic logo,” said Thomas.
“If I walk around in my normal clothes they probably wouldn’t think I’m an athlete.
“But I throw that Team USA gear on and it’s like, OK, you know, he’s playing in the Olympics. He’s a part of the Olympics. And to me, that’s pretty cool. It’s just unbelievable.”
‘Passion and pride’
Thomas, the second-highest ranked player in the field behind No 3 Collin Morikawa, tees off alongside world No 26 Joaquin Niemann of Chile and Britain’s Paul Casey in one of the signature three-balls at 8:25 am on Thursday.
The top-four players in the world were all absent from the 2016 Games when golf made its Olympics return, citing reasons including packed schedules and the Zika virus, but a stronger field will compete in Japan.
The last-minute withdrawals of world No 1 Jon Rahm and Bryson DeChambeau because of Covid-19 positives, added to high-profile players such as Dustin Johnson opting to skip Tokyo, has not taken away the lustre of the Olympics for those who have qualified.
“I couldn’t be more proud,” said the 22nd-ranked Casey. “I feel passion and pride to be wearing this shirt and to be competing. I couldn’t think of anything greater than winning a gold medal as a golfer.”
British teammate Tommy Fleetwood spoke of how thrilled he has been to meet other medal winners.
“I’ve just been very, very excited since travelling out here. And we’re having a great time,” Fleetwood told reporters.
“I love the attitude of everybody here. I love sport. I love how many things are going on.
“We were lucky enough yesterday to meet Matty Lee, who had won a gold [in diving], and Lauren [Williams] in the taekwondo.
“She had won a silver and you’re watching those guys and you’re talking about it to them and their emotion, how they feel. It makes you feel really, really good.”
Australia’s Marc Leishman has been drawn to play with home favourite Hideki Matsuyama, Asia’s first Masters champion, and Canada’s Corey Conners in the group immediately after Thomas, Casey and Niemann.
He agreed that playing in the Olympics was something very special, as coveted as a Major.
“This is only once every four years,” said Leishman, the world No 36. “As a golfer, I think we didn’t grow up thinking we would have a chance to win a medal.
“So I think as time goes on, this is going to get bigger and bigger. If it wasn’t equal to a Major, it would be a very, very, very close second.”
© Agence France-Presse