This event -- and the women's event next week -- are extremely difficult for me to pick, simply because there are so many unknowns. Those unknowns include not only the lower-ranked players who make up most of the field, but also the psychology of being in the Olympics for the first time, the unfamiliar conditions of the course (different colors and textures of sand in the various bunkers, for instance) and even the shorter preparation time.
Of them all, the psychology could be the real wild card here. As we all know, players who have been under-performing can suddenly "find their games" when put in the position of representing their countries. Whether the additional emotion causes them to focus better, or it gives them an energy jolt, or it just helps their self image because they were chosen, being an Olympian can bring out an Olympian performance. So all the metrics and stats can be rendered meaningless very quickly!
A player's worldwide schedule should also be taken into account. Solid play in a variety of conditions should give some players a leg-up over players who haven't needed to adapt to different conditions as much.
So in the end, my "5 to Watch" is really just my best guess as to which athletes are playing well enough to get that Olympic "bump" in their games:
- Henrik Stenson is the betting favorite and I can see no reason to leave him out. Henrik has a proven ability to finish once he gets on a roll, and his OPEN and WGC wins certainly qualify! He might even have won the PGA had it not been for the 36-hole final day; even Stenson had to run out of energy eventually. But he's had some time to recuperate since then, and I expect him to be ready this week.
- Thongchai Jaidee may be the oldest player in the field, but he's been playing well of late -- especially in tropical climates. His win at the Open de France a few weeks back may well be the biggest win of his career. And he's 2-0 when he's needed to win a playoff. He has the mental make-up for a big stage like this.
- Sergio Garcia has been playing very solidly for many months now, including a win at the AT&T Byron Nelson earlier this year, which is held at a windy course in Texas. Add the way his play seems to pick up when he gets in a team competition -- which certainly describes the Olympics -- and I can see him getting it done in a big way.
- Emiliano Grillo is my "young guy" pick. An emotional player with a win at the Frys.com Open last October, Emiliano's game has been sporadic until the last few weeks. At the Bridgestone, THE OPEN and the PGA he posted T14, T13 and T12, respectively. Is it because he realized he had probably locked up his Olympic bid and he stopped pressing? I don't know. But I do know that he -- like Sergio -- is an emotional player, and he's from Argentina, not all that far from Rio. The psychological effects could be huge for him.
- Finally, Patrick Reed is my flier pick. I don't think the US team is as strong as some of the others -- only Bubba has won lately, but he's only had two Top25s since March. So when I look at the team, I find myself watching Patrick. He's from Texas, and his game is well-suited to the windy conditions. His consistency is up this year, and he's gone T10-T12-T13-T11 in his last four starts (Scottish Open, OPEN, PGA, Travelers). And he's proven that he can handle the big moment, especially when representing his country.
Even if he doesn't take the gold, I think he may get a medal of some sort.