Golf’s leaders could relieve the schedule uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic and follow the lead of the Tokyo Games by retooling for 2021
The modernist headquarters of the International Golf Federation overlooks the north shore of Lake Geneva in Lausanne, Switzerland. The Alps loom farther beyond. In normal times, Antony Scanlon can take an occasional break and enjoy the view.
But these are surreal times. Coronavirus has been detected in at least 210 countries and territories. The pandemic has afflicted more than 1.5 million people worldwide, causing some 88,000 deaths, sowing fear, and throwing the global economy into a downward spiral. Scanlon, the federation’s executive director, is among the lucky people who still have a job and are able to work from home under national shelter-in-place protocols.
Internet service that he described as “functional” has been a mere annoyance to Scanlon while trying to conduct IGF business remotely. More stressful is the uncertainty of tasks at hand.
That stress was especially intense during the first three weeks of March, as the International Olympic Committee, also based in Lausanne, was fending off withering criticism and mounting pressure to postpone the Tokyo Olympic Games because of the coronavirus pandemic. The IGF runs Olympic golf, and Scanlon was tracking developments anxiously.
“It was crazy,” Scanlon said via email on March 24, shortly after Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, announced a joint decision with the IOC to postpone the games until 2021. “Obviously, with as fluid as this situation has been, it would be much preferable to be able to meet with my team, the IOC and others face-to-face. But, as everyone is doing, we’re adapting and trying to be as efficient as possible.”
The postponement was disappointing, yet a great relief.
“We’re pleased that they [IOC leaders] acted decisively at this time to alleviate any uncertainty about preparations for this summer,” Scanlon said.
He was being diplomatic. During the previous six weeks, as coronavirus was finding its stride with the ease of Usain Bolt in a 200-meter race, IOC president Thomas Bach was decisive only in his mind-boggling insistence that the show could go on. Like Bolt, Bach appears to live in a parallel universe.
Only when Canada and Australia threatened to boycott; coronavirus made its way to Africa; the U.S. Olympic Committee pleaded with Bach to postpone; and Abe declared Japan unwilling to host the games in the wake – or worse, a second wave – of the pandemic, did Bach come to his senses.
The IOC at first cautioned that dates for Tokyo 2021 might not be finalized before June, as a task force weighed the needs of all stakeholders. Only six days passed before those dates were announced: July 23-Aug. 8. Multiple conference calls with national sports federations had yielded a unanimous decision to retain the traditional midsummer time frame.
As it turns out, the IOC was ahead of the curve. In the ensuing weeks, only the R&A has taken similar forward-thinking action by postponing the 149th British Open until July 2021. The PGA of America, U.S. Golf Association and PGA Tour continue to operate under the wishful thinking that the PGA Championship, U.S. Open and various Tour events can be played in 2021. Ditto for Augusta National Golf Club, which holds out hope that a November date for the Masters will be doable. (It’s noteworthy that Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, unlike his counterparts in California and New York, resisted early shelter-in-place directives and recently displayed a commerce-over-citizens’-health predilection by opening his state’s beaches against the wishes of local governments.)
The IOC, of course, had to consider the needs of many more sports than golf. While it may have dilly-dallied for several weeks, it ultimately concluded that a piecemeal attempt to salvage Tokyo 2020 would have been futile. International sports federations welcomed the schedule clarity, but the IGF still finds itself at the mercy of various pro tours hoping to rescue some portion of their 2020 seasons.
“Now that we know the new dates, we will work to finalize the qualification system for the Tokyo Games and adapt all our operational plans accordingly,” Scanlon said.
On the surface, Scanlon figures to have it easier than most of his counterparts in other sports, whose teams are determined by trial events. The IGF employs the men’s Official World Golf Ranking and the women’s Rolex World Rankings to determine its fields of 60 competitors. Those rankings use formulas that weigh performance on 23 men’s and 10 women’s professional tours around the world over a rolling two-year period, which for Olympic purposes ends roughly five weeks before competition begins.
The IGF simply could reset the qualification period to July 2019 through June 2021, but that timeframe is problematic because it includes at least four months during which dozens of tournaments used in both world rankings will have been postponed or canceled. If the pandemic continues to widen, that period of golf inactivity will continue to lengthen.
The Olympics is a made-for-TV event, and golf’s eligibility criteria were crafted to ensure that the sport’s biggest stars qualify. Any nation with multiple players among the world’s top 15 – such as the United States (men) and South Korea (women) – can field up to four contestants. A maximum of two players outside the top 15 can represent each country.
If the Tokyo Games do take place as rescheduled, the postponement doesn’t figure to affect players currently ranked among the top 30. For the next 30, it might mean a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity lost. And for those high on the IGF’s reallocation reserve lists – such as Laetitia Beck of Israel, Fabian Gomez of Argentina and even Tiger Woods – recalibrated eligibility is a welcome reprieve.
The IOC doesn’t want to penalize athletes who already had locked up spots in the Tokyo Games. Nor does it relish depriving those who were on the qualification bubble of their last chances to make the grade. Scanlon would not comment on the possibility of expanding golf’s new qualification period via an earlier beginning, which in effect would make up for the forced stretch of inactivity.
Scanlon is a lanky, 54-year-old Australian who excelled at rugby and cricket as a young man. With the help of his uncle, who was a club professional, Scanlon became a respectable golfer. He worked for the organizing committees for the Summer Games in Sydney, Salt Lake City and Athens before joining the IOC in 2004 as director of Olympic Games coordination, operations and services. Golf was reinstated as an Olympic sport in October 2009. Ten months later, Scanlon took the helm of the IGF, which was charged with organizing and promoting Olympic golf. Founded in 1958 as the World Amateur Golf Council, the organization changed its name in 2003. It also runs the World Amateur Team Championships.
I saw Scanlon in action for five weeks in Rio, where I helped manage golf media relations at the 2016 Games. He’s a take-charge, no-nonsense administrator – an imposing yet amiable figure who doesn’t suffer incompetence. During his tenure at the IOC, Scanlon acquired the moxie not only to navigate Olympic politics, but also to hold his own with leaders of golf’s pro tours and ruling bodies, all of whom tend to have an inflated view of the game’s stature in the world.
In reality, golf is a small potato in the Olympic stew. If it wants to remain in the mix, golf needs to deliver another compelling show in Tokyo.
After a 112-year hiatus, golf rejoined the Olympic family at the Rio Games. PGA Tour leadership had been lukewarm to the idea, at best, wary of the quadrennial scheduling challenges. Many players thought golf didn’t need the Olympics because the sport has its own world stage with the major championships. Other stakeholders in golf, particularly the R&A and USGA, saw the Olympics as a vehicle to grow the game worldwide, and that view prevailed.
The Great Olympic Golf Experiment was put to the test immediately when more than 20 eligible players – including six of the top 10-ranked men – skipped the Rio Games, most citing fears about the 2015-16 Zika virus epidemic in the Americas. Those who did participate generally raved about the experience, and chided the no-shows for missing out. The IGF also had the good fortune of having three popular players – Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson and Matt Kuchar – win the men’s medals (Rose claiming the gold when he birdied the 72nd hole to end a scintillating duel with Stenson, which produced strong TV ratings), and LPGA stars Inbee Park, Lydia Ko and Shanshan Feng finishing atop the women’s field.
Speculating on the trajectory of the coronavirus pandemic is as futile as trying to predict Tiger Woods’ tournament schedule. If the best-case scenario unfolds and the pandemic subsides by late summer, the full-year Tokyo Games postponement might preserve the positive energy that was generated in Rio. But if apprehension about the Zika virus – conspicuous by its absence in Rio – is any indication, coronavirus will have to be a speck in the rearview mirror for the independent contractors who populate pro golf to participate in the Tokyo Games. Otherwise, the likely absence of golf’s big names will doom the sport’s Olympic status after the 2024 Paris Games, perhaps even sooner.
Olympic eligibility – indeed, the future of Olympic golf – may be far down the list of considerations as pro tours around the world wrestle with scheduling, but it is indicative of the logistical nightmares, as well as impositions on players and stakeholders, that any attempt to salvage 2020 would produce. Like the hour gained with daylight saving time, a firm, unanimous decision to reset for 2021 would be a welcome ray of sunshine for golf.
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