Golf: Going For Gold In 2016

Tiger Woods has just about done it all in the game of golf: 14 major championships, 69 career wins on tour, a record stay at world number one, NCAA, U.S Amateur and Junior titles, Fed-Ex, Ryder, and Presidents Cups. There’s not much else to conquer really. Over the weekend at the Buick Open Sir Nick Faldo noted that one day Tiger is going to save the world a lot of paper because when he gets done with his career the record books are just going to read “Tiger” and nothing else. But there is one thing Tiger’s good buddy Roger Federer still has a lot over him- a gold medal.

That all might change on August 13 when the International Olympic Executive Committee meets to announce the results of its vote on the inclusion of golf into the Olympic rotation for 2016. On that day the IOC will announce which two of the seven sports under consideration to be considered for final admition into the 2016 summer games. The other six other sports under consideration for the bid are baseball, karate, roller sports, rugby, softball and squash. The two sports nominated will then be discussed before the entire International Olympic Committee at a panel in Copenhagen, Denmark and the announcement with come on October 9, the same day as the announcement of the 2016 host city.

Golf has been a conspicuous absentee from the Olympic rotation since 1912 and its nomination for the 2016 games has divided the world golfing community.

The main argument against golf being included in the Olympics is that golf is already a global game, one too entrenched in the professional side of the sport to do the Olympic experience justice. With major world tours, on both the men’s and women’s side, ranging from the powerful PGA and LPGA tours of America and Europe to tours in Japan, Korea, Australasia, South America and South Africa to name but a few, the sport already has a wide global reach, touching down on almost every part of every continent on the planet.

Add to that international competitions like the Ryder Cup (now considered only behind the soccer World Cup and Summer Olympics in terms of popularity), Presidents’, Walker, Solheim and Curtis cups, WGC championships and the four major championships, it remains to be seen how an Olympic gold medal could top any of that.

The only other sport that has been in a similar situation recently to golf is tennis, which was re-introduced to the Olympic rotation at the 1988 Olympics Games in Seoul after a 62 year absence. It was in Seoul that Steffi Graff famously won the “Golden Slam”, all four majors plus the Olympic gold in one calendar year (she is still the only person to do this). Since ’88 many of the games’ top players have skipped the Olympics, deciding instead to concentrate on a hefty summer schedule of major championships. Many fear that golf will follow the same trend. Many of the top-ranked players, including Tiger Woods, have, so far, shown a luke-warm support for golf in the Olympics.

“It would be great to have an Olympic gold medal,” Woods recently said, “but if you asked any player, ‘Would you rather have an Olympic gold medal or green jacket or Claret Jug?’ more players would say the majors.”

It’s pretty clear which one he would rather win.

Woods’ comments about the validity of golf as an Olympic competition appears to be one of the major arguments against the inclusion of golf in any future Olympics, just like there is currently in tennis. Even if you are a follower of tennis, it is much easier to name the winners of each of the years’ majors than it is to note who won Olympic gold, even though it only happens once every four years. Experts and former tour players alike believe the same thing is sure to happen with golf should it make it to 2016.

“Who wants to run the 100-meter dash, and not have the world’s fastest runner show up?” said Olin Browne, a tour player and member of the PGA Tour’s Policy Board. “What’s the point?”

Former tour player and Australasian PGA Tour board member Mike Clayton agrees.

“One wonders why there is this seemingly never-ending quest to include golf in the Olympics,” Clayton said last year. “Presumably it would qualify the game for extra government funding but . . . an Olympic tournament could never approach the importance of the game’s grand slam championships.”

One man who knows an awful lot about both the running both professional golf event and the Olympics is current Augusta National chairman Billy Payne. Payne served as the CEO of the Atlanta Olympic Committee and is considered the driving force in Atlanta’s surprise winning bid for the 1996 games. Since then Payne has taken over the reigns at Augusta National from Hootie Johnson and run the Masters tournament. While many have speculated that some of the world’s top players will be absent from the Olympic experience should golf be included in 2016, Payne has a different opinion entirely.

“Once players are asked to represent their country, they will play,” he says. “You’d be surprised by the power of the Olympics to move people.”

Indeed, international stars like Ernie Els, Padraig Harrington, Sergio Garcia, Lorena Ochoa and Suzanne Petterson have all expressed interest in playing for their respective countries in 2016.

Another who has ties to both parties and is a strong advocate of golf in the Olympics is former LPGA Commissioner and current Executive Director of the International Golf Federation’s Olympic Committee, Ty Votaw. Votaw points to the growth of other Olympic sports as the main arguement for golf becoming an Olympic sport.

“There are 300 million people now playing basketball in China,” Votaw said. “There wasn’t anywhere near that number before the (U.S.) Dream Team played in Barcelona (in 1992). I’ll take 10 percent of that. The estimated number of golfers in the world is around 60 million, so if we get another 30 million then we’ve grown the game by 50 percent. Even if it’s 1 percent, 3 million, then we’ve still grown the game.”

Even though Votaw has neglected to take into account the fact that Chinese and NBA superstar Yao Ming has accounted for a great deal of the recent basketball growth in China (not to mention a relaxing of communism in the country in general), Votaw still has a point. He goes so far as to sight tennis as a perfect example of how the game can be advanced in counties just based on the far-reaching influence of the Olympic experience.

“Look at how women’s tennis in Russia has grown since tennis became an Olympic sport,” Votaw said. “I don’t think there would be so many world-class Russian tennis players if tennis didn’t have Olympic status.”

Again Ty, the end of the Cold War around that time may have had a lot to do with the growth of sports in general in that area of the world.

Greg Norman, a long-time proponent of spreading golf as a global game, sides with Votaw and Payne as well.

“Golf is one of the most global games out there, among the top five in the world,” Norman said. “So why not include it?”

Why not indeed?

Many aspects of Olympic golf have yet to be determined, and one of the main focal points is the inclusion of professionals, as well as the actual format for the event. In 1992 the IOC allowed professional basketball players to represent their country for the first time in Olympic history, and out of that decision sprang the aforementioned “Dream Team” which went onto win the gold medal by an average of over 40 points a game. Heck, head coach Chuck Daly didn’t call a single time out the entire tournament. Opposing teams were seen asking members of “The Dream Team” to pose for photos and autographs before they played.

Since 1992 however, the rest of the world has caught up with USA basketball, and subsequent team USA’s have not always taken the gold. In fact, in 2004 in Athens Team USA failed to even make the gold medal match. An argument could be made that the rest of the world has caught up to the Americans because of The Dream Team and the way they spread the popularity of the game globaly. Their popularity spawned a world-wide basketball epidemic and today more players from overseas play in the NBA than at any other time in its history.

Olympic golf has the potential to do the same thing that professional basketballers in the 1992 Olympics did. Imagine a player from a lesser known golf nation, one with a huge population such as India or China, playing along side the likes of Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson. This would be the dream scenario for the IOC and the main reason behind the Olympic golf push. The potential for growth in countries like China in this scenario could be exponential. However the chances that something like this would occur all depends on the format that the IOC decides on (should golf make the cut).

Many are calling for the absence of professionals should golf be awarded a spot on the roster for the 2016 Olympics. One proposal suggests a format that would essentially be a re-hashing of the Eisenhower Trophy, the event currently known as the World Amateur Championship. It is currently contested by 3 players from the participating countries in a stroke play format. Some are calling for a similar event where 2 professionals from each country, based on world rankings, would compete in a four round event to decide the medal winners (WGC World Cup anyone?).

In a discussion appearing on The Golf Channel recently, world no. 3 Paul Casey of England favoured a format along the lines of the Alfred Dunhill Cup which was contested by 3 players from each country in a combined stroke play and match-play format. That event was discontinued in 2000.

Clearly much as still to be discussed, including of course, if golf deserves to bask in the Olympic flame.

Regardless of the outcome of the IOC meeting later this month, golf will continue to come up on the Olympic radar and be a hot-button talking point in the future. Whether, in 20 or 50 years’ time an Olympic Gold medal becomes as prestigious as a major trophy or a Ryder Cup is unsure, but Ty Votaw makes a good point about golf and its history.

“If Jack Nicklaus had won three Olympic gold medals, then you can bet Tiger Woods would have had that target on his chart on his bedroom wall when he was a kid.”

Tiger Woods winning Olympic gold? That would certainly be one for the record books. 

3 Responses to “Golf: Going For Gold In 2016”

  1. Ron Mullard says:

    If golf is to be included in the olympics it should only be amateurs and not tour players that perform.The various tours are big enough to promote the sport without the need for Olympic recognition.The results would be almost forgone conclusions with certain countries being most dominant because of their players greater strength in the game and what I believe would would result in a hollow victory for winners and an ultimate lowering of credibility in both golf and the Olympics.

  2. Kurt says:

    Hey Andy,:grin:
    Golf in the Olympics would be a good thing….but because of the Professional players out there….the decision is easily arrived by leaving PGA, Professionals out of the Olympic games…leave it to regular players, like: how many jobs are there for pole vaulters, long jump, shot put etc., in the real world? There aren’t any, and like there are no jobs for regular golf players, So, so sorry to the Tigers and company, its time for the recreation world to have their place in the Sun, and not just the elite players…..
    Golf for Life, Kurt:cool:

  3. Carlos Tondo says:

    Dear Andy,

    Great post. For those of us creating new golf communities in the 3rd world.

    Golf in the Olympic Games can only help too, and it will, spread the word about this fantastic sport. Almost sure that the number of golfers
    will double in a decade or so.

    Keep up your amazing work for golf.


    Eng. Carlos Tondo


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