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In our Thrills in Tokyo series, we’ll highlight some of the summer Olympics biggest competitions. More than just focusing on the teams, we’ll look at the colleges from which these athletes hail.
The first golfer from Asia to win at this year’s Masters, Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama's personifies just how global the sport has become. But while golf may reach every corner of the globe, players from other countries still consider the U.S. as the place to take their game to the next level. Of the 120 golfers competing at the Tokyo Olympics, 50 of them—representing 27 countries—got their start at the NCAA.
Ultimately, while some may turn professional and get a spot at the PGA and LPGA Tours, many go back to their native countries, join local tours, and wind up competing against Americans in the Olympics.
After a 112-year absence, golf made a memorable return to the Olympic stage at the Rio Games in 2016. Though there are no clear favorites to make the podium this year, a series of international players are ready to take the challenge. (Some big names, including Spain's Jon Rahm and American Bryson DeChambeau, were unable to participate due to COVID protocols.)
While all eyes will be on local Hideki Matsuyama and Ireland's Rory McIlroy, Norway's Viktor Hovland is ready to take the big stage. A mere 23 years old, he's found success both as an amateur and a professional. Playing for Oklahoma State, Hovland won the U.S. Amateur and NCAA team titles in 2018 and finished as the best amateur player at the Masters and U.S. Open. Afterward, he decided to put his college ambitions aside and go pro. So far, it seems like the decision paid off: He became the first Norwegian player to win on the PGA and European Tours, and he's currently sixth place in the Olympic Golf Rankings.
Venezuelan Jhonattan Vegas, meanwhile, just may be the dark horse to beat. "There's no greater honor than representing your country's colors, especially at the Olympics," Vegas posted on his Instagram account. With three top-11 finishes in his last four tournaments, the Texas Longhorn has the game to back his Olympic ambitions.
Moreover, his journey to Tokyo is quite inspiring. The two-time Olympian started playing the game with a broomstick and a rock and eventually upgraded to a nine-hole course built for oil camp employees. After finding success in both Venezuela and across Latin America, he joined the University of Texas golf team. Once he turned pro, he started a series of firsts for his home country. He became the first Venezuelan to: gain a PGA Tour card; win at the PGA Tour; compete at the Presidents Cup; compete at the Olympics.
Then there's Austria's Sepp Straka. With his twin brother Sam caddying for him in Tokyo, the former Georgia Bulldog set a new tournament record with an 8-under 63 on the first round. But it looks like his brother's influence goes beyond just helping him around the course. "Despite two golf-mad parents, my twin brother, Sam, is the real reason I play the game," said the younger of the twins.
After watching the Rio Games in 2016 together, they knew they had to make it to Tokyo. "It would have been fun even without his score," Sam, who also played at University of Georgia, told the Golf Channel after they finished their first round. "We've both been big Olympics fans. The atmosphere this morning was awesome."
For sports excitement, turn to the Olympics. For driving thrills, click here to see what Nissan has to offer.
Catch full Olympic coverage on NBC, including Men’s Golf, tomorrow, Saturday, at 9:00 a.m. ET.