News & Opinion

After Tokyo, Olympic golf could mix it up

Last summer, golfers were defecting at an alarming rate from the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Ultimately, the players who cited concern for the Zika virus and/or civil unrest in Brazil as reasons to skip golf’s return to the games after a 112-year absence would be relatively small. Yet, any world-class event without the likes of Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth draws attention for those absent as well as those present.

The defections generated much hand-wringing and could have put golf’s future as an Olympic sport in peril, but the games were played without incident.

On Friday, the International Olympic Committee confirmed that the 2020 Tokyo Games and the 2024 Olympics – to be decided between Los Angeles and Paris – will include golf. 

“The IGF is gratified to learn of the IOC Executive Board’s decision to include golf in its recommendation for the Olympic Games program in 2024,” the IGF said in a statement. “We were always confident that golf would deliver exciting men's and women's competitions in Rio de Janeiro, and even at that, it exceeded our expectations. Now, we are excited to build upon the success from last year as we prepare for the 2020 Games in Tokyo and, hopefully, beyond.”

Golf is guaranteed a spot in the next two Summer Olympics, but the format for 2020 will remain the same as in Rio: 72 holes of stroke play for the men and women.

Many worldwide golf observers sought a different format – match play, team or mixed team – to distinguish the Olympics from the four rounds of stroke play so common in professional golf.

According to sources, formats differing from stroke play were discussed, but timing proved to be a problem.

Because golf returned last year to the Olympics for the first time since 1904, the 72-hole format was acceptable to the IOC; a combination of match play and stroke play in the same competition was not.

The desire for consistency was another reason to keep 72-hole stroke-play intact, at least for the next Olympics, and allow for comparisons between the 2016 and 2020 games.

Although a potential separate team event could have worked, it likely would have been sandwiched between the two days separating the men’s and women’s competitions.

Weather and/or a two-week commitment by the men and the women may have been too much of an obligation for some players. It also could have prompted more defections from match play, leading to additional hand-wringing.

Should golf prove to be successful in 2020, expect another run at a format change, with match play the likely addition in 2024.

Proponents of match play contend that it would attract a younger demographic into golf and the Olympics, which is a goal of golf officials and the IOC.  

The IOC approved 3-on-3 basketball for the Tokyo Games, as an appeal to younger sports fans.

With the PGA and European tours creating different events such as the two-man team play this spring at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans and Golf Sixes in England, any similar change to future Olympics likely would be met with more support than skepticism.

The PGA Tour and LPGA also are considering a future mixed event, so mixed teams in the Olympics would have strong backing.

After Tokyo, golf will have many potential options to bring to the IOC for 2024 and beyond. The goal won’t be so much supplanting stroke play but rather adding to it.

Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: alex@morningread.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli