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WHAT APATHY?

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LONG BEFORE JUSTIN ROSE WON GOLD, GOLF SHOWED IT BELONGS

IN THE PARLANCE of the sport, golf made a great save at its first Olympics in 112 years. If the run-up to the Games was dominated by the dispiriting withdrawals of many top players, these pampered point-missers were all but forgotten by the end of a wondrous week in Rio. On Sunday afternoon Great Britain's Justin Rose(right) held off Henrik Stenson of Sweden in a spirited duel, and just how much the gold medal meant to this buttoned-up chap was evident in the lusty celebration that followed, with Rose pounding his chest and pulling on the flag stitched across his heart. But the game had begun winning hearts and minds as far back as the opening ceremony.

Carrying the flag for Bangladesh was Siddikur Rahman, who had been introduced to golf at 10, when he began caddying at Kurmitola Golf Club for 30 cents a loop. Rahman is now an honorary club member and always overtips his caddies. "It is humbling and overwhelming to know those boys saw me on TV carrying the flag, as did millions of others across the subcontinent," he says. "The message was clear: Golf is for all of us."

By far the most winning aspect of the Olympic experiment was the unfettered joy the players radiated. Every golf nerd has a low-grade inferiority complex around real jocks, yet in Rio they were treated as equals by the world's greatest athletes. Golfers were omnipresent at other events to cheer for their new pals. "I'm a kid in a candy store," said Bubba Watson.

It's a measure of how much golf connected with the fans that, at an Olympics plagued by empty seats, all 15,000 Sunday tickets were sold, and the crowd was loud and lively. The star power on the leader board added to the energy. After tying the course with a 63 to seize the bronze medal, Matt Kuchar said, "I'm just bursting with pride."

In the end it came down to the 2013 U.S. Open winner and the reigning British Open champ. Rose and Stenson were tied on the par-5 home hole; Stenson played a poor pitch, and Rose's was an instant classic to within two feet—like that the medals were decided. Rose received his atop a podium on the 18th green while the Union Jack waved against a bright blue sky and a stirring rendition of "God Save the Queen" filled the air. "It's a very surreal moment," Rose said. "It felt very different to any other golf tournament."

Indeed, it was so much better.