News & Opinion

Olympics struggle to matter among golf’s elite

Major championships demand the attention of the sport’s top players, so the PGA Tour's condensed schedule might keep the 2020 Tokyo Games and potential gold just out of reach

KING ABDULLAH ECONOMIC CITY, Saudi Arabia – The smile from Justin Rose, with a gold medal around his neck, proved to be inspirational to many golf fans watching the 2016 Olympics. For most professional golfers, the moment didn’t change the fact that the Olympics is a necessary addition to the game, if only every four years.

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Justin Rose wins gold at the 2016 Rio Games, golf's return to the Olympics after a 112-year absence.

With the 2020 Tokyo Games still six months away, a key question among the game’s top players continues to focus on whether they will compete if qualified. It’s not much different from the runup to the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, which marked the return of golf to the Olympics after a 112-year hiatus.

Four years ago, the questions concerned the spread of the Zika virus, a seemingly convenient excuse for players who didn’t want to make the trek to Brazil.

Now, the potential reason for skipping a trip to Tokyo is the compact season schedule and the effects on the July 30-Aug. 2 Olympic tournament.

“Obviously representing the United States in the Olympics is something that, you know, definitely be proud to do,” Dustin Johnson said in a news conference here Tuesday at the site of this week’s Saudi International. “But is it going to fit in the schedule properly? I'm not really sure about that, because there's so many events that are right there and leading up to it.”

At the beginning of the 2018-19 season, the PGA Tour changed its schedule, moving the Players Championship from May to March and persuading the PGA of America to move its PGA Championship from August to May, compressing the major-championship season.

This year, there will be eight weeks between the PGA Championship on May 14-17 at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco and the British Open on July 16-19 at Royal St. George’s in England.

Those eight weeks include the Memorial Tournament, U.S. Open, WGC-FedEx and, for many players, the European Tour’s Scottish Open, which is a prelude to the British Open.

So, from PGA week through the British, that’s three major championships in 10 weeks, preceding a flight to Tokyo for the Olympics, which will be two weeks before the FedEx Cup playoffs start on the PGA Tour.

“We have four majors a year,” American Brooks Koepka, the world’s top-ranked player, said when asked about the Olympics. “[In] track, you've got indoor and outdoor championships, different things like that, but that's their big event, the Olympics, and it only comes around every four years. Golf, we've got four majors every year, and now we're going to add the Olympics, and you've got the Ryder Cup or the Presidents Cup, plus the FedEx Cup for us, and that's a lot of weeks on the road, a lot of weeks traveling back and forth, a lot of time zones.”

There is no pretense about it: Johnson and Koepka are sitting on the fence, and which way they fall will not be determined for a while.

On the other hand, Ireland’s Shane Lowry, the reigning British Open champion, already has booked his ticket for Tokyo.

Four years ago, Lowry cited the Zika epidemic as a reason why he did not compete in Brazil. In retrospect, his excuse looks more understandable than it did when Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Louis Oosthuizen, Branden Grace and Jason Day cited a similar reason to skip the Olympics.

Lowry had just gotten married, and he and wife Wendy hoped to have a baby early in their marriage. When they found out that she was pregnant, Lowry opted out of the Rio Games.

“She was only five weeks pregnant at the time, and we didn't want to take any sort of chance at all,” Lowry said Wednesday in Saudi Arabia. “Now we've got a healthy and happy little girl. No Olympic medal can match that.”

Today, Lowry’s desire to represent Ireland is the motivating factor.

“I'd be sitting here right now, this year, sort of the second Olympics, does it mean more than the majors? Probably not,” Lowry said. “But I do see it down the line being a big thing in golf. But the thing is for me, being Irish, we don't win many gold medals at the Olympics. So, I think that's one kind of goal that I have in my head, that I think it would be incredible to bring a gold medal back to Ireland.”

Major championships remain the holy grail of golf. That fact seems unlikely to change, but most players see a time when the Olympics will be treated like a fifth major. That day appears to be far down the road.

“Some people would say that the majors are probably a little bit more important, but because we play the four majors, we are very lucky,” Lowry said. “We have four majors every year. I play between 25 and 30 events every year, but the other Olympic athletes, they are training for four years for one thing. So that's not the way we go about our business.”

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