There may not be fans at the Olympics, but there’s plenty of support

hideki matsuyama

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KAWAGOE, Japan — There are no roars at the Olympic golf competition this week, but it’s not hard locating Hideki Matsuyama. Japan’s native son has had the largest gallery all week, even without spectators allowed at Kasumigaseki Country Club.

Dozens of media and photographers, and well over a hundred volunteers lined the first tee for Matsuyama’s opening tee shot Saturday morning. With all the volunteers wearing the same blue and white shirts, the Japanese horde seemed to move as one across the golf course. Watching his son play from the same group, Stefan Schauffele said the handful of official scorers (wearing red) had spent the day marshaling the marshals.

The group makes it easy to find Hideki, but they also make it easy to pinpoint the others out at KCC. Every player in the field has someone in their corner.

Carlos Ortiz’s Mexican faithfuls were easy to spot. Gaby Lopez, who has known Ortiz for 15 years, wore the green. Her caddie rocked the red. In a sea of blue and white, they stood out wherever they went. “An unconscious reminder,” as Gaby called it. “Knowing that Mexico is right next to him, it kind of motivates him to bring the best out of him. And when it’s this hot, you can very easily get down or distracted. But you can go, ‘Oh, there’s Mexico. I’m performing.’ It’s just a reminder to keep pushing, pushing, pushing.”

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The loudest non-Matsuyama cheer came from Team Great Britain on 18. Tommy Fleetwood was five under for the day and had just made a wicked par-save on the 17th. Asking for his birdie putt to drop for a 65 “might be a bit greedy,” Team GB Manager Nigel Edwards said. Not so greedy at all. The 41-footer rolled up the hill, banked off the flagstick and in. Tommy pumped his fist low. His caddie punched his fist high. Edwards joined Nigel Tilly, the team’s physio, in a clumsy embrace. “That would have been a sweaty hug,” Fleetwood said, hearing about it afterward. But you can’t blame them. Fleetwood has played quite well all week. Finally the putts dropped Saturday.

If you recognize Edwards’ name, that’s because he’s a bit of Welsh golfing royalty. He played in four Walker Cups, victorious in 2001 and 2003, and has been a captain twice, 2011 and 2013. He’s part of the Walker Cup selection committee and decidedly a good guy to have around when competing under the Union Jack.

Japan had its own golf legend at the course Saturday: World Golf Hall-of-Famer Isao Aoki. He greeted Matsuyama near the first tee, braving the heat in a sport coat and loafers at 78 years young. Volunteers who recognized him bowed when they passed by. Fellow senior Franco Chimenti, president of the Italian Golf Federation, one-upped Aoki, walking all 18 holes with his upstart countryman Guido Migliozzi. “Brravvo!” he shouted for all to hear when Guido saved par on No. 9. All the 24-year-old pro could do was smile.

Hideki Matsuyama shares a pre-round laugh with Japanese golf legend Isao Aoki. Sean Zak

Chimenti was recently elected to a sixth term as president, and is the man bringing the Ryder Cup to Italy for the first time, two years from now in Rome. He was happy to talk with this American journalist, just not during the round. “It would be impossible,” he said, for him to focus on an interview while Migliozzi still has shots to play. Fair enough, Franco! He turns 82 next week.

The highest golf royalty in the crowd at KCC is also the tallest, and makes it incredibly easy to locate the Australian golf delegate. 1991 Open Champion Ian Baker-Finch stands out at 6’4”. But also, Team Australia has not deviated from their green and gold apparel all week. As Team Manager, IBF tries to stay out of his players’ way, but is keen for them to have an Aussie within sight wherever they are on the course. That hustle, he says, adds up to 20,000 steps a day.

“I start each player [off the first tee], I finish with each player,” he says. “I come out in the first car of the day. Just be around. I can’t hit the shots, but if they need me, they know I’m around.”

Support doesn’t really end when they leave the course, though. “I do anything I possibly can to make it easier for them to be in good form, to be in good shape, to be in good spirits,” he says. That could mean anything, of course, but one thing it definitely means is “to make sure they have a nice, cold beer waiting for them when they get back to the hotel.” That’s a major champion on beer duty, folks. Team Australia has a cooler stocked in their team room at the hotel with their favorite Japanese beers, Asahi Super Dry and Sapporo. 

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“People think, ‘Ah, they shouldn’t be drinking, you’re at the Olympics,’” he said. “But a couple of beers after eight hours here in the 90-degree temperatures. That’s not gonna hurt.” 

The Aussies are in good shape, beer-wise for a medal victory party Sunday night, especially in comparison to those staying in Tokyo. There is no alcohol on offer in the Olympic Village, and Tokyo has been placed under a state of emergency since mid-July, which means no alcohol is being sold in town. So what happens if Tommy Fleetwood or Paul Casey add to Great Britain’s medal count Sunday afternoon? 

“We’ll have to find something,” Edwards said. He got the chance to feel a medal the other night when British divers Tom Daley and Matty Lee were showing off their prize for finishing first in men’s synchronized 10m. The weight and size of the medal surprised Edwards. It surprises a lot of people. The scene from that night, he says, is seared into his memory. It gave him goosebumps while we talked about it at the golf course.

“To see that look on their face when they get a medal,” he said. “That’ll be celebration enough.” 

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