As we know golf will return to the 2016 Olympics in Rio in August this year. It will be the first time it will be played since the 1904 staging of the event in St. Louis, Missouri so the golfing world is sitting up with interest. It’s to feature two events, the men's and women's individual events. It throws up all sorts of questions regarding professional versus amateur status, the format, the venue and the players. So let’s go through what we know already.
The field will contain both male and female professional golfers, 60 of each, based on the official world golf rankings to determine eligibility. The top-15 world-ranked players will be eligible for the Olympics, with a limit of four players from a given country. Beyond the top-15, players will be eligible based on the world rankings, with a maximum of two eligible players from each country that does not already have two or more players among the top-15. Got it?
The format will be four rounds of stroke play, nothing new there with medals to the top three men’s and ladies in the fields. And the venue is a brand new purpose built course, The Olympic Couse (that name came straight from left field) on the outskirts of Rio. By all accounts it is nothing short of spectacular, a purpose build stadium course.
So Jordan, Rory, Jason, Danny, Lydia, Lexi and a host of other golfing superstars will be mixing with the elite athletes in the Olympic village in Rio this summer, right? Well that’s where it gets interesting. There is no prize-money for the winners. At one point is was going to clash with the USPGA. The latter has now been moved to the end of July and instead it clashes with the John Deere Classic, with a purse of $4.8m. At this point very few players have committed it to their schedules. For instance if Jordan decides to play he will likely miss the tournament he first won in 2013. Adam Scott has already stated that he won’t be playing due to “an extremely busy playing schedule and other commitments, both personal and professional”. Scott had previously described Olympic golf as an "exhibition". And Fiji's Vijay Singh has also ruled himself out over fears of the Zika virus (I’m assuming he is worried about getting pregnant!) And now Louis and Charl Schwartzel are out too. Apathy?
I’m guessing there will be a bit of novelty in the 2016 event. Players will no doubt be honoured to play for their country and have a chance at winning the same medal as some of the track and field stars. LeBron James will be there playing basketball for the USA team, as will Neymar playing soccer for Brazil. And Usain Bolt will be jetting in to go for a hat trick of Olympian gold medal collections. It would be pretty cool to hang out with guys like that in the village. But does the prospect of competing for a piece of gold half way round the world appeal to most golfers on the PGA Tour? Will the PGA ‘encourage’ players to compete?
Golf in Brazil is something of a minority sport. Although the country boasts over 100 courses it is pretty much focused on the elite. Instead the masses focus on soccer, basketball and volleyball. So I can’t imagine the golf events being sold out. In fact I’ll wager that they will struggle for spectators as it is competing with a lot of other sports.
And it has also been touched with a spot of politics. An action group “Occupy Golf” is focusing on the new course from an environmental perspective. The Olympic golf course is being built in a high-end suburb of Barra de Tijuca, which protesters and prosecutors claim is an environmentally protected area. They feel that building the course is not worth the potential damage to wildlife, especially because the city already has two other golf courses. But hey, there are protesters pretty much on every topic these days.
Tennis suffered a similar fate to golf in the Olympics. It first appeared in 1896 but was dropped after the 1924 Games. It only came back in 1988. Andy Murray won the Olympic Gold Medal in 2012 in front of a home crowd and treated it in the same way as a Grand Slam event. Most of the top seeded players played. The difference is that results from the Olympics was counted towards both the ATP and WTA world rankings in singles for that calendar year. I’m not so sure that golf will carry the same WGR or Fedex rankings points.
I’m wondering if it will turn into a World Cup style event with no-names turning up to represent their country? So if Jordan and Ricky turn it down it goes down the list until you get to Kevin Kisner and Justin Thomas to represent the USA team. And by the way I don’t say that disrespectfully. I’m guessing it depends on the World Rankings but I don’t see any more than about 25 countries represented. We’re unlikely to see the best golfer from East Timor teeing it up!
And where do the caddies fit in? Will they be part of the team? After all the players refer to themselves in the “we”. Will caddies walk in the Olympic Parade alongside their players? Will they be allowed fraternise in the Olympic Village? Or will caddies simply be treated as team members like the coaches? Will they receive medals? Blind Para-Olympians such as the runners have guides who also get medals. The cox in rowing events is part of the team. So will caddies be considered? And what if a Kiwi caddies for an American, how would that work in terms of nationalities? If it was amateurs the decision would be that they would simply carry their own bags, but they will be professionals. Can you see Rory carrying his own bag? Just as I thought.
My view is that golf will be a side show to the main track and field events for this Olympics. Even if all the big guns show up to represent their respective countries, the viewing figures for the 100m final will undoubtedly dwarf the final round of the golf. It won’t feel like a major for the winner, more like a nice curiosity. I can just imagine Ricky standing on the podium, decked out in his skater pants and boots with a bronze medal hanging round his neck, looking bemused as the Australian national flag is hoisted to the tune of the “Advance Australia Fair", (the Aussie national anthem) in homage to Jason Day, the winner. Or Lydia Ko standing in-between two South Korean golfers on the podium whistling “God Defend New Zealand”.
One of the points of golf being re-introduced to the Olympics is to create awareness of this sport in developing nations, which can only be a good thing. Who knows, there may be a future golfing superstar in Africa, India or China who may be inspired at seeing golf for the first time on the biggest sporting stage in the world.