Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Australian Marcus Fraser gazed down on a formidable league of nations who ganged up behind him as the first Olympic Games golf competition for 112 years promised to turn into an epic medal shoot-out in Rio de Janeiro this weekend.
Fraser, the first round leader after an opening 63, followed that up with a solid two-under-par 69 to lead the 60-strong field with a ten-under-par total of 132.
Now the man from Melbourne can expect a strong challenge from no fewer than five Europeans – including the Champion Golfer of the Year, Henrik Stenson of Sweden – who are poised to make their move over the final 36-holes which will see the gold, silver and bronze decided at Reserva da Marapendi Golf Course on Sunday afternoon.
Fraser’s accomplished performance earned him the most slender of margins over emerging Belgian star, Thomas Pieters, whose 66 lifted him to nine-under-par, one in front of Stenson, who added a 68 to his opening 66.
England’s Justin Rose, the 2013 US Open champion, and Frenchman Gregory Bourdy, are right in the mix a further two shots behind on 136 after matching rounds of 67 and 69. A fifth European, Rafa Cabrera Bello, sustained his continent’s challenge alongside Canada’s Graham DeLaet and New Zealand’s Danny Lee, who fired a best-of-the-day 65.
Two-time Masters champion, Bubba Watson, battled his way back into contention with a terrific second round of 67, following a disappointing opening 73. On 140, two-under-par, Watson needs a strong Saturday in Rio, as does his United States team-mate, Matt Kuchar who added a 70 to his first round 69.
Fraser admitted that he felt some nerves as he set out in the second round, but was pleased with the way he stayed calm under the pressure of competing for an Olympic title. He said: “You always feel nerves, but I’ve done a really good job of controlling them over the last couple days.”
But it helped to have his best friend, Jason Wallace, caddying for him. “Obviously having my best mate on my bag to have a chat to and laugh with – and laugh at – has been good fun,” Fraser said. “We’re having a great time out there. He’s taken the week off work to come over and caddie for me. It’s a lot of fun out there with him. We’ve known each other since we were kids, ten years old.”
The looming presence of Stenson will add considerable lustre to an already exciting Olympic Games golf competition, while Rose also represents a huge medal threat as one of the elite group of major champions in the field.
Stenson, who stabilised his round in tough conditions with a 50-foot birdie putt on the second hole and a 108-footer to save par on the third, said: “There’s a lot of golf still to play. Of course, I’ve always said that I always prefer to be two ahead than two behind, but if you’re not there at the halfway point, you’ve got more to make up for the next two rounds. But over 36 holes, if you’re playing good, you can obviously make up quite a few shots. Yeah, I’m happy with the first two days.”
Rose felt he hadn’t reached his full potential over the first 36 holes and commented: “They certainly don’t give anything out today, so all you can do is put yourself in position. I feel like I’m in a good position going into the weekend. I feel like I have another gear or two to try and find, and it would be nice if it all clicked into shape when you need it.
“It was good. I was solid. You know, I was just staying in third gear with an uphill climb, just grinding it out. I haven’t seen any long putts fall. I had the hole‑in‑one obviously yesterday which was a big stroke of luck, but I feel like there haven’t been any sort of distance putts made yet or anything like that. So I feel that I need to keep doing what I’m doing and wait for a run of birdies.”
Quotes of the Day
Marcus Fraser 132 (63, 69): “I think whenever you play, you want to play your absolute best and give it everything. You want to finish as well as you possibly can. That will be no different on Sunday afternoon. Whether I’m back in the pack or whether I’m fighting out for a medal, I’ll be giving it everything I possibly have and laying it all on the line.”
Thomas Pieters 133 (67, 66): “If you don’t dream about it (an Olympic medal), you’re never going to achieve it. I am thinking about it, yes, but you kind of put that to the side when you’re playing and try to shoot the lowest you can.”
Henrik Stenson 134 (66, 68): “I saw a couple of the guys (from the Swedish handball team) out there. I’ve been watching them quite a lot, so I guess it’s only fair that they repay the favour. Of course, when you have some of the best athletes out there, you want to try to hit it close and I did on a couple of occasions. They have got a day off, so I get they are just out relaxing and healing up some bruises from yesterday’s battle.”
Justin Rose 136 (67, 69): “I don’t think we knew what to expect (from the Olympic Games golf) and I think it has exceeded expectations, for sure. I just think the camaraderie between the wider team that you’re a part of has been fantastic. The friendships that you actually make outside of your sport and stuff like that, I feel that is kind of the state of the Olympics. I think is what you appreciate when you get here.”
Seamus Power 138 (71, 67): “The most nervous I’ve been this week was on the first tee playing my practice round with Pádraig (Harrington). He’s an idol for Irish golf – always has been. It’s been great to get to know him a little bit and play with him. He’s been very helpful. Paul McGinley, too, and Ronan (Flood – Harrington’s caddie). Those guys couldn’t be any more helpful. They are not afraid to share what they have learned. They have confidence in themselves.”
Thorbjorn Olesen 138 (70, 68): I think it’s great (the Olympics). It’s a good atmosphere out there today. Even with the rain this morning, there was still guys out there cheering you on. You see your own flag and you see all the other flags out there, people hanging them around their neck and stuff like that. That’s a great atmosphere.”
Bubba Watson 140 (73, 67): “What a privilege and honour that golf is in the Olympics and to be a part of this. Right or wrong, you know, it’s hard for me to focus on golf because of the fact that it’s just a dream of a lifetime to be associated with these great athletes.”