Golf’s Olympic Odyssey

After an absence of more than a century, golf returns to the Olympic Games in 24 months’ time as one of 42 different sports screened to the world’s biggest TV audience of up to five billion people. John Collard, CEO of marketing agency Sports Impact, examines what this means for golf.

The last time golf featured in the Olympic record books in St Louis, Missouri in 1904, only two countries competed for medals, the home nation and Canada. In contrast, 30 countries are expected to be represented as 60 men and women contest individual 72-hole stroke play tournaments at the Rio Games in August 2016.

This re-introduction into the global sporting festival in which more than 200 countries take part promises to be a significant milestone for golf in extending its appeal and attracting more young people in particular into the game. But, as well as fulfilling personal ambitions for top players like Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson who are already thinking about qualifying from next year, it could turn out to be a very long journey over the next two years, given the extent to which the game will come under wider media scrutiny in the build-up to the Games…and then be compared as a visual ‘product’ up against 305 other medal events.

It took a big lobbying effort from the International Golfing Federation (IGF), along with stars like Nicklaus, Norman, Sorenstam and Harrington, to convince the Olympic family that golf should once again be part of sport’s greatest showcase. The IGF had to contend with some awkward questions from IOC members about the high cost of playing the sport, its accessibility in developing countries and the exclusion of women from leading clubs. The final vote in 2009 was far from unanimous, with 63 in favour and 27 against, with two abstentions, while rugby (a four day Seven’s tournament) attracted 81 votes and only eight against with one abstention. One American delegate who raised questions about discrimination at top golf clubs, even urged the IOC to “avoid going down a road that may be harmful to our image”.

Since then, recent controversy surrounding the handling of Dustin Johnson’s break from the game to deal with his ‘personal challenges’ has given critics the chance to depict golf as a sport in denial and still to enter the modern sporting world where transparency is a necessity rather than a goal. The affair has also thrown open the matter of drug testing and the current PGA Tour policy of keeping quiet about details of positive tests or subsequent punishments handed out to players for using recreational drugs. The subject of performance-enhancing drugs being used in the sport has been swept aside since Gary Player made unsubstantiated allegations seven years ago, but is sure to resurface along with calls for random testing on tour.

George LyonLike tennis before it, golf also had doubts about its place in the Olympic movement expressed within the sport itself, with many believing that winning any number of majors would always prove the ultimate prize for an individual at the top of the sport, rather than becoming an Olympian and aiming for a gold medal. Nor were some convinced that a tournament based on the conventional scoring system would be attractive enough to viewers around the world wanting short, sharp events lasting seconds, minutes or at most, a couple of hours.

The fact that the world’s top 15 players will be eligible to compete, regardless of how many countries they represent, will ensure the tournament is played to a high standard. But it could also mean that fewer non-golfing nations tune in to see another stroke play contest where the winner could finish an hour before the last putt, so depriving the event of a traditional Olympic-style finale. Only if the first three places are tied, will there be a play-off over three holes to determine where the medals go.

According to the latest IGF Olympic qualifier rankings, four Americans (including Tiger), two Irishmen, two Australians and individuals from GB (Justin Rose), Spain, Sweden, Germany, France, Japan and South Africa would head the field. Rivals will be drawn from the world rankings, with a maximum of two eligible from each country that doesn’t already have two or more in the top 15.

As someone who worked at the London Olympics in 2012, I saw first-hand how the world’s broadcasters and journalists would generate maximum exposure around those events that were likely to capture the imagination of the largest domestic audience. Therefore, the focus was often as much on the unheralded local competitor as the world stars they were competing against. Brazil, with fewer than 30,000 golfers and around 100 courses in a country 34 times larger than Britain, will have Adilson da Silva, currently ranked 291 in the world, to cheer.

In order to attract more players, sponsors and investors into the sport in the future, golf has to ensure that its return in 2016 is widely recognised as a great success and worthy of another round in 2020. The next two years will have a bearing on that objective, perhaps even more than the outcome of the two tournaments in Rio.