News & Opinion

World’s top golfers split on Olympic participation

Justin Thomas at 2021 PGA Championship
Justin Thomas will lead what is expected to be a 4-man American contingent for the Tokyo Games next month.

Tokyo Games will require a time commitment during a key point in PGA Tour schedule, but many players see value of golf in Olympics

DUBLIN, Ohio – On July 29, the first round of the Olympic men’s golf competition will commence in Tokyo.

Unlike five years ago, when the mosquito-borne Zika virus dominated the discussion about who might not go to the Rio de Janeiro Games, participation at the Tokyo Games seems to be coming down to schedule and preference.

While most of us have not had to decide whether our actions affect our ability to win millions of dollars, PGA Tour professionals find themselves in that very predicament. Only three tournaments – one of them a World Golf Championships event – are scheduled in the two weeks between the Olympics and the start of the FedEx Cup playoffs.

Any player who opts out of the Olympics is not being unpatriotic, though it’s often a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“It’s a great honor to be called an Olympian,” Padraig Harrington said of representing Ireland in the 2016 Rio Games, golf’s return to the Olympics after a 112-year absence. “I wish I was there this year, even with all the difficulties you’d overcome because it is the Olympics.”

Harrington believes that in many cases around the world, especially to non-golf followers, the gold medal won in Rio by Justin Rose for Great Britain is more important than a major title. Eventually, perhaps 50 or so years from now, Harrington thinks that those who follow golf likely will feel the same way.

Harrington said he would not hesitate to go to Japan, even if he were in the hunt to win the FedEx Cup. American Dustin Johnson, the world’s top-ranked player, took the opposite approach to the Olympics. At the Players Championship in March, he begged out of the games, saying the Olympics are “in the middle of a big stretch of golf for me." 

Johnson might have a point. At 36, he has a chance to become the first player to defend the FedEx Cup title successfully. If so, he would join Henrik Stenson, Jim Furyk and Vijay Singh as players 36 or older to win the PGA Tour’s season title.

American Bubba Watson, who advocated for golf in the Olympics and competed in Rio, said he would go again, regardless of his place in the FedEx Cup standings. Yet, he said he understands the dissenting opinions, as well.

“I would embrace it and say I’m an Olympian twice,” Watson said. “But I’ve told the Tour that I believe it should be amateurs. Why mess with our schedule. Let us just do our thing.”

Watson said he understands the top players in the world seeking to prioritize their schedules. Australia’s Adam Scott also said he won’t go to Tokyo.

“If I was around there or leading the FedEx Cup, then you might look at it differently,” Watson said. “If you go a week early, which you need to, to catch up on your sleep and your time, then you need to practice. And when you come back, it affected you for a week to two weeks, so you’re looking at affecting three weeks to a month of your schedule.”

Justin Thomas is the leading American in the Olympic Golf Rankings, which will be finalized on June 22, the Tuesday after the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. The U.S. is projected to have the maximum four players eligible for Tokyo, based on the eligibility rules.

Thomas has said he considered not competing in Tokyo, but he intends to go. He also agreed with Watson that amateurs should be considered but selfishly is glad that professionals will play this year, though he doesn’t expect to have to commit a month to the tournament.

“I don’t see the month side of it,” Thomas said. “It is a lot, time change, here and there, but I’m not going to opening ceremonies. There's probably a lot less going on due to COVID as opposed to what Bubba experienced [in 2016].”

In the end, the world's top golfers will allow themselves to be inconvenienced to play in the Olympics for their countries or they won't. The reasons either way are legitimate, and though they can be questioned, they shouldn’t be.

“Certainly, 50 percent of the countries in the world wouldn’t know what a major [championship] was,” Harrington said. “They certainly know what an Olympics is.” 

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