News & Opinion

World’s elite golfers need mettle to medal

This summer's Tokyo Games will ring in a golden moment for golf, but American Dustin Johnson and the rest of the game’s stars first must catch the Olympic spirit

Americans Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson, Nos. 1 and 5 in the world, respectively, were asked about the Summer Olympics last week at the Saudi International, and they didn’t exactly respond with abounding enthusiasm. You might say Punxsutawney Phil showed more emotion while looking around for his shadow.

Ryder Cup 2016
Dustin Johnson (left) and Brooks Koepka wore the red, white and blue for American golf in 2016, but it was at the Ryder Cup and not the Olympic Games.

Maybe it was jet leg. In some respects, their indifference to an event nearly six months away is understandable. Koepka is one of those “I’m here to play the event standing before me this week” types, and candidly said that this season’s major championships will be a higher priority. No problem there, for nobody is playing the majors as forcefully as Koepka these days. Dating to the 2015 British Open, he has made 16 major starts, winning four times, twice placing runner-up, and finishing T-10 or better an amazing 11 times in that stretch. Majors, it is. As for the Olympics, you’d like to think Koepka would be so jacked up by summer that he might consider not only golf in Tokyo, but maybe swimming and volleyball, too.

Johnson appeared a little less enthusiastic, bringing up the condensed summer schedule and the added crunch of mixing in an Olympics that will be played a long, long way from home. Again, we get it. It’s a hectic year. He is easily the most accomplished competitor in the FedEx Cup era not to win the FedEx Cup, so that’s certainly a career goal yet to be checked. The three-event PGA Tour playoffs begin only 11 days after the final putt will drop for the men in Tokyo. (The men’s competition is July 30-Aug. 2, with the women playing Aug. 5-8.) And you’d also think with his fit-all-venues talent, he’d like to add a second major soon, too.

A year ago, Johnson took on a busy stretch of eight starts in 12 weeks following up a solo second at the PGA Championship in May. He wasn’t fresh and didn’t perform to his standards late in the season, posting nothing better than T-20 from mid-May on. Pace is an issue to watch. Last week, Johnson talked about the pride of representing his country, but he also added, “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. So, you know, I’m still working with my team to figure out what’s the best thing for me to do.”

The best thing for D.J. to do? One, make the U.S. team, which is no layup. And two, play. Go for gold. A country can have as many as four competitors if all are ranked 15th or higher in the Official World Golf Ranking, and you can be sure that the U.S. will have a full lineup. As of Feb. 3, there were nine U.S. players in the top 13 in the world, a stacked batting order. Beyond the top four – Koepka (1), Justin Thomas (4), Johnson (5) and Tiger Woods (6) – there are talented players in good form within shouting distance: freshly minted Phoenix Open champion Webb Simpson (7), Patrick Cantlay (8), Xander Schauffele (9), Tony Finau (12) and Patrick Reed (13). Gary Woodland, Bryson DeChambeau and Matt Kuchar ... all lurking.

Here’s the thing: For all the talk about these players being independent contractors, making their own schedules and competing only where they want to play, there are certain times to step up for something bigger. The Olympics present a growth opportunity, maybe not so much on our shores, but certainly around the world. The better the show, the higher the tide can rise. Those who participated in Rio de Janeiro four years ago raved about the experience. Ask Englishman Justin Rose about his champion’s gold, and a smile instantly creases his face. Kuchar confided recently that he still travels event to event with his bronze medal inside a sock in his backpack.

For female players, the grand global stage and worldwide viewing audience represented something even larger, frankly. The women’s medal stand was filled with golfers from South Korea (Inbee Park, gold), New Zealand (Lydia Ko, silver) and China (Shanshan Feng, bronze). Especially for Park and Feng, Olympic success helped raise the legitimacy of their sport at home, and told their stories to a broader audience. In Orlando last month to open her season almost two months earlier than normal, Park said she gets recognized more often in South Korea these days, and it’s not for winning seven major titles on the LPGA Tour. The spark was that little gold medal.

The Korean women’s team might turn out to be the most difficult team to make of any, men or women. Park, a legend in South Korea who displays her gold in a case at the front of her father’s packing plant in Seoul, is the second alternate in the current standings, with five countrywomen ahead of her in the Rolex Rankings. (Park is 16th in the world.)

“Definitely after I experienced one [the 2016 Olympics], I definitely felt like this is something that should take first priority in my golfing career,” Park said last month at the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions. “Yeah, I think it was definitely worth it. So, I definitely wanted to take this Olympic opportunity as a big priority in my career and probably my last one, I'm thinking, if I get the opportunity.”

Feng’s bronze-medal effort put her on a completely different platform as an athlete in China. Before Rio, golf simply was not viewed the way traditional Olympic sports are viewed at home, Feng said in a Golf Channel interview. “People finally saw from China, we have golfers,” she said. “We have good golfers.”

Sure, there are some quirks to the Olympic competition itself. The field is very small (60 men, 60 women), and there was a missed opportunity when no team component was included. It makes sense that so many countries are represented – a great impetus to better expose the sport globally – but the reality is this: Woods, say, could fall short of the U.S. team while ranked among the top 10 in the world, while lesser-known players such as Rashid Khan (India), Kalle Samooja (Finland) and Darius Van Driel (Netherlands), none of those three in the world’s top 175, could play in Tokyo.

The ancient games that were a precursor to the Olympic Games kicked off in Athens, Greece, back when dates had only three numbers. Golf rejoined the competitive fray in 2016 after an absence of (gulp!) 112 years. It’s an opportunity, yes, but getting traction will take some time. There are some promising signs. Imagine the excitement that the home country will experience this summer when Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, Nasa Hataoka (a runner-up in the first two LPGA events of the season) and Hinako Shibuno compete in their home country, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Hopefully the busy summer schedule will be kind on Johnson, too, and he plays well enough to hold down a spot on the U.S. squad. And then the hope would be that he realizes this is an opportunity to do something beyond playing in the majors, something that, in time, maybe when he’s old and gray, could be every bit as historic. He’ll be 36 this June, and who knows whether he’ll be in the mix in four years when the Olympics head to Paris and Le Golf National. Talent on the PGA Tour moves swiftly.

The beauty of Johnson’s incredible talents is that he’s going to be a very busy man in 2020. And no matter how far away the stage, history is something well worth the effort to chase. Beneath those Olympic rings, consider it one of those give-back moments to a greater cause that a player encounters from time to time. Who knows? The reward could be pure gold.

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