Let’s get something out of the way right now. Golf at the Olympics might not be very enjoyable in Rio.
Organizers had the chance to make a big splash with the sport’s return to the Olympic stage. Instead of copying college golf and hosting a stroke-play qualifier (and individual champion), followed by a team- and country-based competition, we were offered up the same 72-hole, stroke-play format that we get every week. In a crowded summer schedule of big-time events, it will be ignorable, while also featuring one of the weakest fields in “major” golf.
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Whatever the reason, several of the game’s best players are backing out. With Adam Scott’s not-so-shocking announcement that he would skip the Olympics, followed by the backing out of South Africans Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel, Gary Player made waves this week in showing his displeasure.
“All the top players in the world should think carefully about this,” Player said in his statement. “It is only once every four years! Many people fought tooth and nail for decades to get golf back in the Olympic Games, a true worldwide effort.”
It isn’t surprising that Player is this passionate. Arguably the game’s greatest global ambassador, he sees the potential of what the Olympic spotlight could provide. Those opinions were echoed by Justin Rose this week in New Orleans.
“There's obviously the ultimate question people want to ask: is it more important to win a major or the Olympics? And that's a real tough question,” Rose said in preparation for the Zurich Classic. “They both stand out in their own right. But I think anyone who wins the Olympics, it's always going to be that kind of special thing that they were able to achieve in their career. So yes, I'm excited about it.”
It was a diplomatic answer, part of a larger, calculated response that hedges his excitement with the reality that Olympic golf could be here today and gone tomorrow. If it is, Player may come firing again.
As Jason Day (who is playing in the Olympics) countered, “You can't really get angry at golfers for trying to say that they're going to pull out of the Olympics because it's never been on our radar to win a gold medal, because it hasn't been in the sport. So you just can't really get angry at guys for going in there and saying, ‘I'm going to pull out.’"
Or, can you?
From 1928 to 1984, tennis was not an official Olympic sport. When it returned in 1988, Martina Navratilova famously skipped because “the Olympics just don’t mean as much.” Two decades later, Serena Williams’ legacy is elevated by her 2012 Golden Slam (all four majors and an Olympic gold). Andre Agassi jumpstarted the second act of his career with gold in 1996. Andy Murray’s run to gold at Wimbledon at the 2012 London games may have been the best tennis story of that year, and means as much to him as any major.
“For golfers, it hasn't been in the Olympics for 112 years, so for us, what are the biggest tournaments that we play every year that most people look at are the majors, and your career is pretty much based on how many majors you win and how many tournaments you win,” Day said.
The shortsightedness of many in golf right now paints an unflattering picture of how golfers view themselves in the world lens. In 2016, the Olympics will not mean as much as the British Open. There is no denying that fact. But, should Schwartzel find himself holding the Claret Jug, it will not be followed by the South African national anthem. He will not be draped in his country’s flag, nor will it be broadcast as part of a more global celebration of sport.
From a pure marketing standpoint, it appears that many golfers haven’t seen the financial benefit of a medal win. Nothing in the sport will top the green jacket, but a gold medal is the stuff sponsors drool over. National adoration and corporate adoration. What’s the problem?
“Depending on who wins it, it could really grow the game,” Rose added. “If someone from a developing nation or developing golf nation won it, I think that would be huge for golf, so we'll just have to see.”
It should be noted that Rose’s open-minded approach to the Olympics appears to be the majority opinion, but the lack of big-picture thinking by some is tough to swallow. There are so many avenues trying to grow the game, but none has the potential to do it better than the Olympics (no matter the format). The stage and exposure is too great to pass up. Just once every four years, can the world’s best see the potential that exists both for, and beyond, them?
Gary Player made pennies compared to the modern player and would have gladly sacrificed a major to play in the Olympic Games. You can’t blame him for emotionally questioning why those who followed his lead in so many way won’t do so now. He was right to question those skipping out on Rio. Let’s just hope it isn’t a regret someday.