RIO DE JANEIRO — Matt Kuchar was the last guy to make the U.S. Olympic Golf Team.
Now the 38-year-old is the first golfer to win an Olympic medal for Team USA in 112 years.
On Rio’s Olympic Golf Course, Kuchar made a heroic run in the fourth round, posting the lowest score to leap four spots up the leaderboard and win the bronze medal.
Kuchar shot 8 under par on the final 18 holes and finished with a 271 total, one stroke behind the 270 of silver medalist Henrik Stenson of Sweden. Great Britain's Justin Rose battled with Stenson down the final stretch, finally clinching the gold medal on the 18th green at 268.
“I’ve never been so proud of a third-place finish in my life,” said Kuchar, who lists three PGA Tour wins and a fifth at Masters among his best tournaments coming into Rio.
“Typically, I would not say that,” he added. “As I was out on the golf course, I was thinking that I stand a real shot of medaling. The overwhelming sense of pride is just remarkable.”
The U.S. is now the only country to have won a medal in men's individual golf at all three Olympic Games it has been held — 1900, 1904, 2016.
The fourth and final round of Olympic golf opened on a hot sunny day in Rio, with little wind. Tied for seventh after Round 3, Kuchar — ranked eighth coming into the Olympic tournament — quickly settled in, making birdies on 5, 6, 8 and 9.
After the ninth hole, he was tied for third with Marcus Fraser of Australia and Thomas Pieters of Belgium. But the American claimed the spot for himself after making an eagle on 10. He then made a key par save on 11.
“I play with the intentions of I’d like to win this tournament, but it doesn’t always go that way,” Kuchar said. “Today, it did. It went my way. As I played along, made some birdies, made an eagle, [I thought], ‘Let’s keep your head down and keep making birdies and see where this may lead.’”
Two more birdies on 15 and 17 solidified his position and led to the Olympic podium.
“I was grinning from ear to ear every time I looked at that leaderboard and saw that he was making birdies, and he was making pars, and he was going to get a medal, as long as he signed his scorecard the right way, he was going to get a medal,” said Bubba Watson, a two-time Masters champion who went one under par for the day, tying for eighth.
Also competing for Team USA in Rio, Patrick Reed shot the second-lowest final round to jump 25 places and finish in a four-way tie for 11th at 278. And Rickie Fowler shot three over the par-71 course for a 284, tying for 37th place.
The four American golfers — Kuchar, Watson, Fowler and Reed — came to Rio this week and embraced the Olympic Games as if they had been invited to the best party ever. But rather than storm through the Games as brash pro athletes, they were humbled by the experience.
“This is absolutely the thrill of a lifetime,” said Watson. “This is the greatest sporting event I’ve ever been a part of and associated with. I get the Masters for the rest of my life, but it’s just golf. There’s no other events going on. When you talk about a sporting event, this is a dream come true.”
Of the four, Kuchar seemed happiest to be in Rio. Initially out of the top four U.S. athletes in the Olympic rankings, he had secretly crossed his fingers hoping the other Americans ahead of him in the rankings would pull out, so he could have an opportunity to become an Olympian. He then had a great run just before the deadline to sneak inside the top 15, making it possible for him to be named to the team.
He considered it fate to make the team, then fate to win the bronze medal.
“To say you’re an Olympian really is a dream come true,” he said. “Then to make the most of it, to return home with a medal is amazing.”
For Kuchar, who has yet to win a Masters green jacket, his third-place finish at the 2016 Olympic Games earned him the right to don another jacket — something that he realized while watching the men’s doubles bronze-medal tennis match on Friday night.
The golfer was struck by how happy Americans Jack Sock and Steve Johnson were to win the bronze medal in men’s doubles. They said that they were thrilled that they would be able to put on the Nike navy blue and red jacket given to all U.S. Olympians to wear on the podium.
It occurred to Kuchar that he would “really like to put on that jacket and not have it as a keepsake to take home.”
“Now I’ve earned the right to wear this jacket,” he said proudly, with the bronze medal around his neck.
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn is in Rio covering her fourth Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.