Olympic Golf

It’s Merits and Detriments.
Golf does not have a storied past in the Olympic Games. Introduced at the 1900 Paris Games, it featured 22 players from four countries (France, Greece, Great Britain and the U.S.). It was last featured four years later in St. Louis, when the U.S. fielded 77 players and Canada, the only other country participating, fielded three, including the winner, George Lyon. After a 112-year hiatus, it returns to Rio de Janeiro this year. A great deal has been written about its inclusion, both for and against it. Here we present a synopsis of both viewpoints.
The Olympics, both summer and winter versions, are among the most watched TV events in the world, with some estimating the audience in the billions. That can certainly bode well for the game as viewers from many countries where golf is not currently well-known may be intrigued enough to give it a try. The course being built in Brazil is scheduled to be used afterward as “a public facility with the chief purpose of promoting golf in Brazil,” according to the International Olympic Committee. Translation, it will be a public course for 10 years and its future unknown after that period. Golf’s entry in the Games also gives some of the world’s best golfers an opportunity to win something new: an Olympic medal.
Unfortunately, there are many reasons why golf has been missing from the Olympic Games for over a century and why its inclusion this year has drawn a great deal of criticism, beginning with the format. Unlike the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup, this will not be a team event. Like nearly all golf tournaments, this will be a 72-hole individual stroke-play competition. How will it differ from Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day going head-to-head at dozens of other events this year?
It’s a small field, with only 60 players participating. Qualification is a bit convoluted. The top 15 in the Official World Golf Ranking for the men and Rolex Ranking for the women will automatically qualify, as long as there are no more than four players per country. After the 15th-ranked player, the rankings will be used to determine the rest of the 60-player field, with no more than two players per country beyond the top 15 able to compete.
As of February 7, 2016, the U.S. would be represented by Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson on the men’s side and by Stacie Lewis, Lexi Thompson and Christie Kerr on the women’s side.
Rankings change constantly as one player wins and another misses a cut and it’s conceivable that a player who gets hot after the qualification deadline will not be eligible to compete. It’s also conceivable that the number one ranked golfer in the world could be pitted against one ranked 600. While anything can happen, this competition would be as fair as the U.S. going up against Jamaica in bobsledding.
The appeal of the Olympic Games has been national pride and the ability of the some of the world’s best athletes to represent their country. However, both the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup provide this opportunity for American golfers.
The addition of the Olympics has further compressed a schedule that is crowded. On the PGA Tour, for example, there is an 11-week stretch where 8 of 11 events are majors, Olympics, Fed Ex Cup or the Ryder Cup. Many players will have to choose which events to play and which to skip.
One last concern and one that may well influence athlete participation at the 2016 Summer Olympics, and not just by golfers. Brazil, along with many South and Central American countries and a handful of U.S. southern states, is seeing a significant increase of the mosquito-borne Zika virus, which has been linked to birth defects. We would not be surprised if many golfers, especially women of child-bearing age, choose to opt out of this competition. Considering that golf is played outdoors in areas where mosquitos love to congregate, this situation could have dire effects for years to come unless precautions are taken to minimize exposure to this virus.
In addition to the 2016 Games, golf is scheduled for 2020 in Tokyo. Depending on feedback, the format may well change before Tokyo, though the point may well be moot as the game’s future beyond the 2020 Olympics is up for a vote next year.
-Par Shooter
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