Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 5, 2016

Olympics And Golf, A Mismatch From The Start

Golf returns to the Olympics this summer, for the first time since 1904. The powers that be of the game have been hailing this momentous event since the International Olympic Committee voted to include golf in the Rio Games seven years ago. But while the executives at the USGA, R&A, PGA, LPGA and the International Golf Federation (IGF) may be excited about the prospect of some player winning the first individual golf gold medal since Canadian George Lyon captured his at the St. Louis Games 112 years ago, it’s becoming apparent that some of the presumed participants and many golf fans have little interest in this August’s competition.

The men’s and women’s tournaments, to be held at the Gil Hanse-designed, par-71 course built just for the Olympics in a nature reserve on the western edge of Rio de Janeiro, will both have limited fields of just sixty players. Qualification will be based on the world rankings, with the top fifteen ranked men and women gaining automatic entry, provided that no one country can send more than four players to the Games. Beyond the top fifteen each country’s team will be limited to two men or women.

While the final fields will be based on the rankings in mid-July, as of today this system would result in four American men and four Korean women competing, while all other countries would have at most two players in either of the tournaments. With Christie Kerr and Gerina Piller currently ranked 16th and 17th there remains a chance that the American women’s team could expand beyond Lexi Thompson and Stacy Lewis, currently 3rd and 4th in the world. Likewise there is an outside chance that current Masters champion Danny Willett and former U.S. Open winner Justin Rose could be joined on the men’s team for England by Paul Casey, currently ranked 23rd in the world.

But of late the headlines about golf in the Olympics have been about who won’t play rather than who will. First to pull out was Vijay Singh. But while that may have been a disappointment to whoever is in charge of golf in Fiji, the 53-year old hasn’t won a PGA Tour even in more than seven years. Similarly the announcement by Spain’s Miguel Angel Jimenez that he too would pass on the Games created little stir; and became moot anyway when he was recently passed by Rafael Cabrera Bello as the second highest ranked Spaniard behind Sergio Garcia.

Now bigger names are choosing to spend their August in places other than Brazil. World number seven Adam Scott notified Australian authorities that he would be unavailable, and major winners Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel have both declined the opportunity to represent South Africa. Those three were joined just this week by Marc Leishman, who became eligible for the Australian team when Scott dropped out. Except for Leishman, all of the golfers pulling out of the Olympics have done so because of the packed schedule of tournaments this year. Leishman, whose wife Audrey nearly died last year from toxic shock syndrome, cited concerns about the Zika virus. And while no one on the current list of sixty women qualifiers has yet pulled out, since virtually all of them are of child-bearing age surely many are weighing the risks of traveling to an area of the world at the center of an outbreak of the mosquito-borne disease.

The dropouts have been roundly criticized. Dawn Fraser, who won eight swimming medals for Australia from 1956 to 1964 excoriated her countryman, and American swimmer Michael Phelps joined in the criticism. But they miss some key points. First, the complaints about the schedule are justified. Late next month Phelps will be in Omaha seeking to qualify for his fifth Olympic team. Assuming he does so, his next time in the pool in a competition will be in Rio in August. During that same time period the world’s top male golfers will contest two majors and a World Golf Championships event, in addition to the weekly PGA or European Tour stops. LPGA Tour members will have six tournaments while Phelps is resting up for the Games, including two majors.

With seven years advance notice the PGA Tour and the LPGA could have designed a 2016 schedule that took the Olympics into account. There was more than enough time to give a few insurance companies or banks more than enough notice that the event they sponsor would be dropped from the calendar for one year. Instead the tours compressed their schedules in order to squeeze the Rio Games in without giving up any chance to make a dollar in their usual fashion.

Second, as the organizer of the Olympic competition the IGF missed an opportunity to increase the event’s allure. Suggestions for staging a team event or for a format that mixed genders in the same tournament were ignored. Instead both the men’s and women’s tournaments will be four-day, 72 hole individual stroke play events; the same format that the players participate in and that fans watch on television week in and week out.

Third, a qualifying system that ensures that the participants in Olympic golf will be the top professionals in the world only serves to remind how far the Games have strayed from their original intent. A tournament featuring the world’s best amateurs would have been more appropriate, but it surely would not have been a television ratings winner, and the Olympic Games have long since become thoroughly commercialized and corporatized. In the winter games the hockey competition among national teams of NHL players may attract big audiences, but it upends the NHL’s season every four years; and in the end it is never as dramatic or lasting as 1980’s Miracle on Ice.

Finally, there is the simple truth than in the century plus since golf was last an Olympic sport, the game has developed its own traditions and history. There are of course many sports, including the swimming competitions in which Fraser competed and Phelps still does, for which the Olympic Games are the pinnacle of achievement. But golf is not one of those sports, nor will it ever be.

In the wake of the rash of dropouts there is concern that golf may not last in the Olympics beyond 2020. Should that prove to be the case the Olympics and the game of golf will go on, both ultimately little troubled by the parting. And Adam Scott will get to spend a few days this August with his lovely wife Marie Kojzar and their daughter Bo Vera Scott. About the time he could have been teeing off in Rio, Bo Vera will turn 18 months old.  Surely that moment will be more golden than any medal.

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Responses

  1. Nice.


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