Should golf be looking forward to its Olympic return?

Should golf be looking forward to its Olympic return?

Golf, modern golf at least, treads new ground later this year when some of the game’s best protagonists -- note "some" -- compete for a gold medal at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janiero.

Golf has been a part of the summer games before but not since the days of gutta-percha balls and hickory shafts. In 1904 at Glen Echo CC in St. Louis, a peculiar field comprising amateur golfers from just two countries (and who didn’t necessarily represent their homeland but rather a golf association to which their golf club was attached) competed for the medals. The team gold went to the Western Golf Association, and the individual event was won by a Canadian chap who had taken the game up at the age of 38 who celebrated the victory by walking on his hands through the clubhouse.

The game has changed a good deal since then, of course. And the world in which the Olympics has become a global sporting festival watched by more than 4 billion people and in which over 200 nations take part is likewise altogether different.

Beyond players striking a ball with a club on a course, this year’s golf competition will not resemble what happened 112 years ago in the slightest. For a start, the list of entrants will be made up of professionals.

Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, was a great supporter of amateur sport and resented the very idea of people making a living from playing a game. The word "amateur" was written into the original Olympic charter, and players found guilty of playing for money were disqualified. U.S. decathlete Jim Thorpe had two gold medals taken away following the 1912 Games in Stockholm because he played professional baseball in America. Numerous other athletes were barred or disqualified for accepting some form of payment, direct or otherwise.

Rules on professionals competing at the Olympics began to loosen in the 1970s. In 1988, pro tennis players appeared for the first time, followed four years later by superstars from the NBA and other pro basketball leagues around the world. And though Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Tyson Chandler and LeBron James probably don’t regard their gold medals in the same light they do their Wimbledon trophies or NBA titles, they surely are proud to have had the opportunity to represent their country.

It's odd though that the soccer and boxing competitions are still largely amateur or age-restricted.

This discrepancy between Olympic sports -- some played by amateurs, some by professionals -- is a little confusing, and for some time has begged the question ‘What are the Olympics for, actually?’

Should they seek to identify the very best athletes and sportsmen and sportswomen in the world? Or should they hold true to Coubertin’s ideal and award medals to very good athletes who might also work in a bank?

I recently had this conversation on Twitter (where a lot of the best ideas for articles and conversations originate) with someone who insisted the Olympics should be the "pinnacle of amateur sport."

I agree to a very small extent.

If we still lived in Coubertin’s world –- one without jet airplanes, computers or the Masters -- what rum fun we'd have celebrating the world’s top amateur athletes. How splendid it would be to dish out medals before luncheon, then head home for a fun parlor game and tea at 4. Capital idea!

In many sports –- diving, gymnastics, horse-jumping, rowing, for example -- finding the best amateur does of course mean finding the best in the world. The ideal still works. But in other sports, it is terribly outdated. What, really, is the point of Olympic soccer in which eight of a team’s 11 players have to be below the age of 23? Who, outside a few interested stakeholders, can remember any Olympic soccer tournament?

In rare instances, Olympic soccer success has definitely had a profound impact on certain countries -- Cameroon after the men’s team won the gold medal in 2000, Nigeria in 1996 -– which is hugely positive and gives the event some meaning. But it is not regarded seriously by the world’s top footballing nations.

So it’s a good thing organizers decided this year’s golf tournament would be contested by top professionals. With all due respect to two of the amateur game’s best players, you might not feel terribly motivated to watch an event in which Spain’s Jon Rahm-Rodriguez was battling for the gold medal with France’s Romain Langasque. The winner of that match-up might have trouble competing with the player ranked 500th in the world, so I’m not convinced there’d be much point to it. Leave that for the U.S. and (British) Amateur Championships.

“Would a gold medal for a millionaire pro mean as much to them as it would to an amateur?” my pro-amateur (you know what I mean) friend countered.

Probably not. A handful of players, most notably Adam Scott, have said it wouldn’t mean anything at all and that they don’t feel much motivation to qualify. But I don’t think that’s the point of the Olympics. They’re not about identifying the person for whom winning a medal means the most.

So, I think it’s great that golf is returning to the Games, and I’ll probably really start looking forward to it after the PGA Championship, bumped up to July this year, just two weeks after the Open Championship, to accommodate the Olympic tournaments. Allowing professionals to compete was the right thing to do in my opinion. But which professionals will be playing?

The International Golf Federation (IGF) confirmed back in July 2014 that both the men’s and women’s tournaments will be limited to 60 players competing over 72 holes of stroke play.

Here’s where it gets confusing. The 60-player field will be determined by the official world rankings for men and women -- good -- and everyone in the world’s top 15 will be eligible -- fine. But no country can field more than four players, and to do so they'd all have to be inside the top 15 at the cutoff date. The remaining field will be filled with a maximum of two players per country for countries that don't have more than two players in the top-15.

Not only does that mean we could see some pretty obscure players from countries you probably didn’t even know had a golf course, it also means a lot of South Korea's world-class women golfers will not be in Brazil. And the U.S., which currently has six players in the men’s top 15 (as of March 2) would be taking Jordan Spieth, Bubba Watson, Rickie Fowler and Dustin Johnson if the Games began today but would be leaving Patrick Reed and Jim Furyk at home.
Based on today’s rankings, Bangladesh’s Siddikur Rahrman, currently 350th in the world, would get to play in the Olympics while the man numbers say is the 10th-best player in the world would not.

Some will say that’s fine -- the Olympics are a global celebration that should involve as many countries as possible. Again, I agree but not much.

It’s good to see so many countries competing and those countries benefiting from being there. But the Olympics, to me anyway, are about identifying the best, the strongest, the fastest, the most courageous, the most skillful – not handing out medals to people who perhaps shouldn’t be competing in the first place. No, Rahrman probably wouldn’t finish in the top three, but the fact he’d be there at all would give the competition an element of "participation trophy"-ness.

In most other Olympic sports there is some kind of mark or level of achievement every participant must reach before the Games in order to qualify. Should there not be something similar for golf? Should every player be inside the world's top 100 or 150?

And why is the field limited to 60? If you had the absolute elite, the top 60 players in the world, then it would mean something. But having 60 players with some ranked below 300, makes it look like an exclusive, invitation-only event whose field will change every year at the whim of the organizer.

Then there’s the format. A four-round stroke play tournament is obviously tried-and-tested and does a sound (though not infallible) job of identifying the best player that week. However, would this not have been a good chance to show the world the virtues of match play, which is quicker and invariably more exciting to play and watch?

Would not a combination of stroke play and match play, like they use at the US and (British) Amateur championships, have been ideal? It would have given a great many more players the chance to represent their country (in the stroke play portion at least), become increasingly engaging as the knockout rounds progressed and finally have culminated in a thrilling encounter to determine the winners of gold and silver.

The argument against match play has always been it can be too fickle, of course, and that big-name players often go out early despite playing better than their opponent. That doesn’t work for TV and is why the PGA Championship switched from match play to stroke play in 1958. Fair enough, but match play in the Olympics would likely have generated more anticipation, among existing golf fans anyway.  

I suspect the Olympic format will see the same tweaking the FedEx Cup did in its formative years. The FedEx is still far from ideal (it needs a more compelling finish like the top two players slugging it out over 18 holes on the Sunday afternoon of Tour Championship week), but it's a good deal better than it was when Vijay Singh clinched it in 2008 by simply staying upright at the Tour Championship. Change won't come as quickly at the Olympics because of the four-year gap between tournaments, but I doubt the format for Tokyo in 2020 (the golf will be played at Kasumigaseki G.C.) will be the same as it is this year.

Finally, the course. Judging by the various photographs published so far, the layout itself looks fantastic which is not surprising given it was designed by Gil Hanse, whose appointment in March 2012 was probably the best decision made ahead of the golf tournament.

Casual golf fans will probably wonder where the flowers, waterfalls and lush green grass are. But hopefully Johnny Miller and the rest of the NBC crew will explain that the site on which the course was built was environmentally sensitive, and that the type of course Hanse builds typically uses less water and chemicals than more ornate courses -- part of the reason he was chosen.

It will be interesting to see how much mention is made, if at all, of the legal issues surrounding the course. A group calling itself Occupy Golf claimed the course would cause irrevocable damage to the Marapendi Municipal Natural Park on which it is located and threaten 300 species of plants and animals. The group also suggested the deal, which saw wealthy Brazilian businessman Pasquale Mauro awarded the contract to develop the land, was perhaps a little shady.

It’s likely Occupy Golf will attempt some sort of Martha Burk-style protest during the tournament, and it’s also likely they will attract a bigger following than the 40 or so women’s rights campaigners Burk managed to gather at Augusta National 13 years ago.

Right now, it appears the 2016 Olympic golf tournament has too many obstacles to overcome for it to turn out well. Development and construction of the course took so long to complete there has been no time for an appropriate test event (less than 10 Brazilian players will play in next week’s one-day trial run). The host country has little or no association with the game. The field will lack depth with only a few genuine stars to create excitement. The organizers missed a great opportunity to distinguish the tournament from golf’s major championships by choosing to stick with 72-hole stroke play. A good deal of apathy among the game’s top players has done little to arouse people’s curiosity. And golf already has four historic major championships, the Ryder Cup, Presidents Cup, Players Championship, BMW PGA Championship, four World Golf Championship events and a number of other prominent tournaments.

Organizers should be praying for a playoff between the United States’ Jordan Spieth, Ireland’s Rory McIlroy and Australia’s Jason Day. It might be their only hope.

About the author


Tony Dear

A former golf correspondent for the New York Sun, and a senior editor on Today's Golfer magazine in the UK, Dear works for a number of titles on both sides of the Pond, and has written five books on the game, the last two of which he thinks are actually pretty good. He is the golf coach of the Bellingham HS boy's team in Bellingham, Wash., and is looking forward to another cold, rainy, spring season.