News & Opinion

Olympic golf needs qualifying for true all-world appeal

With emphasis on world rankings, amateurs have no shot at Tokyo Games

Will an amateur golfer ever win the Masters, the U.S. Open or the British Open?

It’s possible though unlikely.

Will an amateur golfer ever win an Olympic medal?

No way, Jose Maria. The door to the Olympics is closed for amateur golfers.

Olympic Flag
The Olympics

There are a lot of things I don’t like about the Olympics, which effectively are run by TV networks. Don’t get me started on that. What bothers me about Olympic golf, which was restored to the games in 2016 after a 112-year absence, is that it is virtually a closed shop.

If golf is going to continue to be part of the Olympics after next year’s Tokyo Games, it should be open to everyone: pros, amateurs and, you know, assorted wildlife.

The current Olympic golf tournament is limited to 60 players in the men’s and women’s competitions. Expand it to 72 and let players from across the planet compete to qualify for the 12 additional spots.

Qualifying for the Olympics? It was exciting just writing that sentence.

An Olympic qualifying tournament might create even more drama than British Open and U.S. Open qualifiers. It’s one thing to play in an Open, but the Olympics? That’s a bigger stage. It’s the Carnegie Hall of sports.

And no U.S. Open appearance can match the thrill of walking with teammates in the Olympics’ opening and closing ceremonies.
Olympic golf qualifiers would create the kind of drama that TV covers best, and I believe more than one network would want a piece of the action.

How would qualifying work? Give each continent two qualifying spots. (I’ll be signing up for the Antarctica qualifier. That is, once I post enough fake scores to finagle my handicap low enough.)

All right, the governing bodies can figure out the qualifying logistics for the other six continents. Where, when and how many rounds of qualifying will be necessary will be up to them. Anyone with a plus-2 handicap or scores in professional events that would be the equivalent would be eligible.

This qualifying system opens the door to any player, pro or amateur. It would be a long shot for an amateur to break through and get into the Olympic field, sure, but it beats no shot under the system in place now.

Olympic berths are based on the Official World Golf Ranking. Those rankings are seriously flawed, in part due to politics (Japanese tour events are way overweighted, for example; Korn Ferry Tour events are probably underweighted) and in part due to top players competing only 18-25 times a year in different parts of the world in tournaments with wildly different field strengths.

Plus, the only way to get significant OWGR points is to play in tournaments on a major professional tour. Perhaps an amateur from a small country without highly ranked professional players could qualify for the Masters (by winning one of the major amateur championships) and both Opens, and finish top three in each and earn enough points to vault high enough in the world rankings.

The player probably needs to be from a small country because each nation can have a maximum of two competitors – four, if they’re all ranked among the world’s top 15. So, no amateur short of Bobby Jones himself is going to make the U.S. Olympic squad because nine of the top 15 players in the men’s ranking are from the U.S. In the women’s Rolex Rankings, seven of the top 15 players are from South Korea.

Simply put, no player is going to earn enough ranking points to qualify for any of the major golfing countries unless he or she is playing a major professional tour full-time. Amateurs effectively are shut out.

I could argue additionally that we shouldn’t be using the OWGR to decide who plays in the Olympics, just as we shouldn’t be using it to determine the fields at major championships. But then I’d have to suggest a better way. I don’t have one. I’d offer qualifying as a preferable alternative for the majors because it’s based on merit and it’s black and white: the best scores advance. Nobody in the pro ranks wants to hear that, though, and given the full PGA Tour schedule, more qualifying tournaments aren’t practical.

Holding qualifiers for Olympic golf truly would open the games to the world. Maybe an amateur would make the Olympics; maybe not. There are bound to be some good underdog stories among those who would qualify. Think Jamaican bobsled team. Think Loyola basketball and Sister Jean. Think surprising major winners such as Ben Curtis, Hilary Lunke, Birdie Kim and Shaun Micheel.

Expand the Olympics field, hold qualifying tournaments and let every golfer on Earth, even some kid in Greenland, have an Olympic dream.

And if you’ll excuse me, I have to go practice now.