News & Opinion

Golf’s growth has little to do with Olympics

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As top stars beg out of Tokyo Games, golf struggles with simple truth: Olympic gold matters little, certainly not like in other sports

In a sports extravaganza originally designed to showcase the world’s finest amateur athletes in a wide variety of non-commercial events, the Summer Olympics is no place for professional golf. This was a PGA Tour project from start to finish, launched in the mid-2000s under the premise that IOC certification would greatly increase the game’s international presence. As if Tiger Woods himself weren’t already handling such a formidable task.

Former PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem appointed Ty Votaw, who had served as LPGA boss from 1999 through 2005, to oversee the campaign. Votaw worked tirelessly to establish the proper connections and assuage the political obligations required of the process, and in October 2009, the IOC voted to reinstate golf as an Olympic sport for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.

It had been discontinued in 1904. Long before there were tour pros making millions of dollars in on-course revenue, and, in some cases, a lot more money off it. Before the game had established its footprint in the United States. Before South African Gary Player became one of the most decorated golfers ever. Before Australia’s Peter Thomson and Spain’s Seve Ballesteros won five major championships apiece.

This year’s Olympic golf tournament begins July 29 at Kasumigaseki Country Club in Japan; the women’s event starts Aug. 4 at the same venue. Both feature 72 holes of stroke play among 60 competitors, with a limit of four contestants per country. Of course, that means a lot of big names won’t qualify – many of them Americans – and half of the men’s field could include guys outside the top 100 in the Official World Golf Ranking.

Dustin Johnson, who sits atop the OWGR, already has decided not to participate, as has Adam Scott (36th). One shouldn’t be surprised if additional qualifiers decline the invitation, given the looming dangers of COVID-19 or the inescapable fact that some players really aren’t that interested. Gymnasts and swimmers work all of their lives for a shot at Olympic glory, for the chance to perform on what is by far the biggest stage on which they ever will compete.

Golfers are different. The world’s best haul in more dough by the end of February than any pommel horse champion makes all year. They appear on television every time they contend on the weekend, which amounts to dozens of hours of exposure for the companies that also pay them handsomely, whereas a master of the breaststroke might get five minutes of national airtime if he or she wins a race of national significance.

Add the lack of history that connects the little white ball to the five multi-colored rings, and it’s very easy to understand why pro golf and the Olympics are shrouded in a cloak of empathy. For all intents and purposes, the British Open is a longstanding and more appropriate version of the Summer Games. Why not make the Olympic golf tournament an amateur affair? Before the Dream Team came along in 1992 and trampled every opponent on its path to the gold medal in men’s basketball, the United States insisted on sending non-compensated athletes in every sport to represent our country.

The transition to a roster loaded with NBA superstars occurred only after America’s college kids came home with the bronze in 1988. Other countries were using professionals, mainly because they had no chance otherwise, which finally agitated the U.S. to the point of justifiable action – in 1998, it added NHL players to its Olympic squad for the first time.

Are things really better now? At best, the inclusion of professional athletes at the Olympics is a necessary evil. Times have changed, forcing the IOC – famous for its old-world, traditional sensibilities – to ease restrictions on matters involving sponsorship and athlete classification. There is a sadness to it all, a lament of irrevocable proportions that cannot be reconciled easily, if at all.

Never again will we see another “Miracle on Ice” like the one produced by the 1980 U.S. men’s hockey team, a collection of collegiate mutts whom coach Herb Brooks led to gold over the unstoppable Soviets and other world powers. It only stands as the greatest sporting triumph in American history, an accomplishment so extraordinary that it still defies belief 41 years later. 

For all the love and worship dedicated to the Dream Team, which gets a majority of the credit for the 107 players from 41 countries now in the NBA, that same grow-the-game postulate doesn’t really apply in golf. No fewer than 184 majors have been won by players from 84 countries other than the United States. Take away the 95 claimed by England and Scotland, the game’s birthplace, and we’re still talking about 89 titles, all of which have been achieved in the modern era.

Are things really better now? Yes, but a golf tournament at the Summer Olympics has nothing to do with it, nor do bigger and better mean the same thing.

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