After a 112-year hiatus, golf made its valiant Olympics return at the 2016 games in Rio De Janeiro. Concerns over the Zika Virus took some of the big names out, but the return was still a great success, with England’s Justin Rose taking gold, Sweden’s Henrik Stenson securing the silver, and America’s Matt Kuchar winning the bronze.
Those games also represented the 15-minutes of fame for Australia’s Marcus Frazer, who exploded out of the gates with a first round 63.
Of the four players named in the previous paragraph, zero of them are in the field for this year’s COVID-delayed games. Still, Tokyo will be hosting no shortage of the game’s biggest stars, and this year’s competition looks like it could be even better than 2016.
An annoying habit of testing positive for COVID (twice in the last two months) knocked out world No. 1 Jon Rahm, strongly hurting Spain’s chances of medaling after two of their own finishing in the top 8 in Rio (Rafa Cabrera Bello, Sergio Garcia).
COVID also knocked out world No. 6 American Bryson DeChambeau, who would have been a big spectator attraction.
Spain took a big hit with the Rahm news, but we still like the chances of the Americans to get at least one on the podium. The following are the countries we feel will do the best at getting in their way, keeping in mind, that it is not technically a team event:
- Guido Migliozzi (72)
- Renato Paratore (203)
As recently as May, not even the most hardcore golf fans knew who Guido Migliozzi was, but he has firmly put himself on the map since, chasing back-to-back runner-ups on the European Tour with a T4 at the U.S. Open, which was his PGA Tour debut.
He even stuck around in the U.S. the following week, finishing T13 at the Travelers Championship. Just 24 years of age, Migliozzi has five wins worldwide.
Paratore, also 24, has won twice on the European Tour himself, although his last 12 starts have been all over, with two T11s, a T12, a T65, a T71, six missed cuts, and a WD.
Italy would be in a better position for the Tokyo games if Francesco Molinari had not opted out, but the future of Italian golf looks to be in good hands with this young duo.
- Jhonattan Vegas (95)
The only country on this list with just a single representative, the next highest-ranked Venezuelan in the world rankings is Wolmer Murillo, who currently sits at 1653rd.
Even still, the South American country should be optimistic about its chances of a golf medal, seeing as Vegas has two runner-up finishes on the PGA Tour in his last four starts, and was T9 at the AT&T Byron Nelson.
The 36-year-old (writer’s note: wow, I thought he was considerably younger) has won three times on the PGA Tour, and has three runner-ups total in 2021. A bomber, he led the field at last week’s 3M Open in birdies.
Vegas is among just a small handful of players who also represented their country at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, finishing T50 in the 60-man field.
- Alex Noren (92)
- Henrik Norlander (128)
Both Noren and Norlander are at least somewhat known to American golf fans, as they are regulars on the PGA Tour.
Noren has five top 25s in a six-week stretch from April to June, and finished T4 at the recent Rocket Mortgage Classic. He is a short-game specialist with four top-3 finishes on the PGA Tour over the last four seasons, and has won ten times on the European Tour. The 39-year-old has reached as high as eighth in the world rankings.
Norlander meanwhile, might be Noren’s exact opposite in style, but has three top 10s on the PGA Tour this season, including a T2 at January’s Farmers Insurance Open, and was T5 in his most recent start at the Barbasol Championship. He has twice won on the Korn Ferry Tour, and at 78th in the current FedExCup standings, he is a lock to make the postseason for the second consecutive year.
- Thomas Detry (75)
- Thomas Pieters (120)
Pieters looked like a rising star at the 2016 Olympics, where he finished fourth despite a third-round 77.
The 6’5” power hitter also posted excellent results in several majors, but in recent years, his play has greatly stagnated, and many will likely be surprised to see him so far down the OWGR.
Still, the 29-year-old has shown improving form, with five finishes in the 10-15 range worldwide since February.
The 28-year-old Detry has been the better of the two in recent years, but has been incredibly hit-or-miss lately, as his last seven starts have resulted in two runner-ups, a T59, and four missed cuts.
- Viktor Hovland (11)
- Kristian Johannessen (297)
No country has a bigger gap in caliber between their Olympic representatives than Norway. Hovland is a 23-year-old star with two career Tour victories, and won on the European Tour in late June, which he chased with a T12 at The Open Championship.
In the 2021 calendar year, Hovland has five top-3 finishes worldwide, and two other top 10s. He has thrived at every level of the sport. He is the only player in the entire Olympic field who outranks one of the Americans in the OWGR, with his No. 11 outranking No. 12 Patrick Reed.
That’s not to say that Johannessen is a nobody, though. The 26-year-old has finished T16 or better in five of his last six starts on the Challenge Tour. He also won twice on the Nordic Tour at just 20 years of age. He will likely relish this opportunity to finally compete on the world stage.
10. South Africa
- Garrick Higgo (41)
- Christiaan Bezuidenhout (46)
From April to June, Higgo recorded three victories worldwide, the first two on the European Tour, which he won by a combined nine strokes, and the most recent at the PGA Tour’s Palmetto Championship at Congaree, which was just his second career Tour start. He has not quite shaken the hangover from that win, however, with four missed cuts and a T41 in his last five starts.
Five years older than the 22-year-old Higgo, Bezuidenhout has not recorded a win in 2021, but had three in Africa in 2020. He has not missed a cut anywhere since last October, and has found his way onto several major leaderboards, although he has not been able to put together four rounds on the biggest stage.
As tremendous as Higgo and Bezuidenhout are, the chances of a South Africa medal would likely have been much greater had world No. 8 Louis Oosthuizen, who has finished second or third in each of the last three majors, not opted out.
- Hideki Matsuyama (20)
- Rikuya Hoshino (86)
COVID knocked Matsuyama, the Masters champ, out of The Open Championship, but he is back, and gives the home country a better duo than they had with Yuta Ikeda and Shingo Katayama at the Rio Olympics, the latter of which was in last place through 54 holes.
At 29, Hideki finally got that major win back in April, but overall, he has not actually been that great this season. If you exclude The Masters, you have to go all the way back to last November for his last top 10. Also, in five starts since that win, he has not finished better than T23.
Hoshino is not well known in the U.S., but the 25-year-old has won three times in Japan in the past 10 months. Granted, there has not been much evidence of Japan Tour success translating elsewhere.
The two Japan representatives are something of a wild card, but this is The Olympics, and they play for the host country. They are likely to take considerable pride in their performance at Kasumigaseki Country Club.
- Joaquin Niemann (26)
- Mito Pereira (118)
A pair of friends and rising stars in their home country, both the 22-year-old Niemann and 26-year-old Pereira have consistently found themselves high on leaderboards this season.
Niemann posted his third runner-up of the season three weeks ago at the Rocket Mortgage Classic, and has wins in myriad countries.
Pereira got a promotion to the PGA Tour after his third Korn Ferry Tour victory (the first to accomplish that feat in five years), the latter two coming in back-to-back starts in June, and after getting his feet wet, has posted consecutive top 6 finishes. Pereira has even medaled before, taking bronze at the 2019 Pan American Games.
7. South Korea
- Sungjae Im (27)
- Si Woo Kim (55)
The 23-year-old Im appears to have adopted the rigorous work ethic of The Olympics’ host country, having already made 30 starts on the PGA Tour season. He also made 26 starts in 2020, despite the three-month COVID layoff, and 35 starts in 2019.
What might be most surprising, though, is an event he opted not to play, as he skipped the recent Open Championship to focus on The Olympics. That is not a decision many would have made, but it does show considerable commitment to the event. Im has a victory, two runner-ups (including one at The Masters), and two third-place finishes over his past two seasons.
The 26-year-old Kim seems to go through a lot of slumps, but then shows up and takes a tournament when you least expect it, with three career Tour victories, including The American Express in January.
As usual, Kim’s chances will probably come down to whether he just misses some putts, or misses many putts.
- Cameron Smith (28)
- Marc Leishman (36)
If this actually was a team competition, we would be even higher on this pair of Aussies, as the duo won the most recent edition of the PGA Tour’s Zurich Classic, winning in a playoff over the South Africa pairing of Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel.
Smith is currently in a bit of a slump, but has shown tremendous form at times, even finishing runner-up to Dustin Johnson at last November’s U.S. Open.
Ten years Smith’s senior, the Zurich was the sixth career Tour victory for the 37-year-old Leishman, who on five occasions, has finished in the top six at a major.
Both players have been nowhere near their best in 2021 outside of that team win, but have consistently flashed an ability to thrive on the big stage.
- Abraham Ancer (23)
- Carlos Ortiz (61)
An international star at the 2019 Presidents Cup, Ancer is still awaiting his first Tour victory, but has been one of the Tour’s most consistent players this season.
Ancer has made 20 cuts in 23 starts, with 15 of those weekends resulting in a top 25. He also has four top 10s since the start of May. He currently ranks inside the top 50 in five of the six strokes gained categories.
Ortiz has not recorded a top 10 since early February, but he has done something this season that Ancer hasn’t: win. Ortiz won November’s Vivint Houston Open by two strokes over 2020 Masters winner Dustin Johnson and 2021 Masters winner Hideki Matsuyama. Ortiz is the much longer hitter of the two 30-year-olds.
- Corey Conners (35)
- Mackenzie Hughes (53)
The future of golf in the U.S. neighbor to the north suddenly looks shockingly good. They’re led by the 29-year-old Conners, who is having a career year on the PGA Tour, making 21 of 25 cuts, with seven top 10s, and was in contention at both The Masters and The Open Championship.
The Kent State product ranks 11th on Tour in both driving accuracy and greens in regulation, in addition to being 13th in strokes gained: tee-to-green.
Hughes, who also played his college golf at Kent State, rebounded from a disastrous start to his 2020 season to reach the Tour Championship, the final stage of the FedExCup Playoffs.
In 2021, he again saved his best for late in the season, holding the 54-hole co-lead at June’s U.S. Open, and was T6 at the recent Open Championship, shooting four rounds in the 60s at Royal St. George’s.
Hughes is nowhere near as proficient off the tee and with his irons as Conners, but is a tremendous putter.
3. Great Britain
- Paul Casey (22)
- Tommy Fleetwood (34)
The Brits nabbed the gold at the 2016 Olympics, with former world No. 1 Justin Rose bettering Sweden’s Henrik Stenson by two strokes. Rose will not get a chance to defend this year, as a decidedly pedestrian 2020 and 2021 has him as just the sixth highest-ranked player from his country.
Even with world No. 14 Tyrrell Hatton opting out, Great Britain is in good shape with the 44-year-old Casey, who has a win in Europe to go along with eight additional top 15s worldwide.
Casey has been especially strong in the bigger events lately, finishing T2 at the 2020 PGA Championship, T4 at the 2021 PGA Championship, a T7 at this year’s U.S. Open, and a T5 at THE PLAYERS Championship.
Fleetwood, meanwhile, continues to search for that first career PGA Tour victory, a quest that has resulted in many close calls. Still, he posted top 10s at both the WGC-Match Play and the Arnold Palmer Invitational, and in the 2020 season, he had two runner-up finishes on the European Tour, and two third-places, one apiece on the PGA and in Europe.
- Rory McIlroy (13)
- Shane Lowry (40)
McIlroy, a four-time major champion, would be expected to be the Irish heavyweight in Tokyo, but he has struggled since winning the PGA Tour’s Wells Fargo Championship in May. In his last three starts, Rory has a missed cut and a T59 in Europe, and most recently was T46 at The Open Championship.
Still, the 32-year-old has 19 PGA victories among 36 victories worldwide, and has finished in the top 10 of a major on 23 occasions. If his head is right, he has shown the ability to dominate.
Lowry might not be as highly-regarded as McIlroy, but has five finishes inside the top 12 on the PGA Tour since March, and is just two years removed from winning the 2019 Open Championship by six strokes.
These two have their ups and down, but have proven that at their best, they are impossible to stop.
1. United States
- Collin Morikawa (3)
- Justin Thomas (4)
- Xander Schauffele (5)
- Patrick Reed (12)
Who else could it be? The Americans are the only country to get more than two players in the field, doubling anyone else. And it’s not just quantity: the U.S. has the first, second, third, and fifth highest-ranked players in the field.
Morikawa is fresh off a win at The Open Championship, which was his debut. The 24-year-old also won the 2020 PGA Championship, and that was his debut. He already has five wins on the PGA Tour.
Justin Thomas is not his best version since winning THE PLAYERS Championship in March, but he has 14 career Tour victories at just 28 years of age, and is a former PGA Championship winner.
Schauffele is a four-time Tour winner who has been a mainstay on major championship leaderboards.
The Americans lost a little distance when Bryson DeChambeau was forced out of The Olympics after a positive COVID test, but his replacement is Patrick Reed, a former Masters Champion who is nicknamed “Captain America” due to his proficiency in events representing his country.
This is a runaway, and could be even worse, as Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka opted out.
Regardless of the imposing American presence in this field, it is not a team event, so picking against the Americans for the gold would be nothing like picking some other country in basketball at the 1992 games.
Next Five: Finland, France, Thailand, Denmark, Colombia