Olympic promotion of golf

Glyn Pritchard looks at the arguments for including golf in the Olympics and its benefit in promoting the game on the world stage.

When you think about summer Olympic sports, what springs to mind? Almost certainly track and field athletics, possibly gymnastics and swimming and maybe velodrome cycling – it’s unlikely though that golf will immediately be your first thought, even if you work in the golf industry.

The inclusion of golf in the summer Olympics for the first time since the 1904 Olympics, was largely the work of Ty Votaw, Vice President and Peter Dawson, President of the International Golf Federation (IGF). The IGF wanted golf returned to the Olympics to provide a worldwide showcase for the sport to promote golf participation to countries such as India, China and Russia which have huge populations but little interest in golf. Is golf really a natural Olympic sport though? One of the reasons that golf slipped off the summer Olympic roster was that, even in 1904, the best players in the world were professionals, so the Great Triumvirate of Harry Vardon, John Henry Taylor, and James Braid were ineligible to play in the Olympics. It was only after the 1988 Games, that professional athletes became eligible for the Olympics.

Glyn_Pritchard Newsletter photoFor track and field athletes and gymnasts, the Olympics represents the pinnacle of achievement in their sports with their training and event schedules geared around reaching peak performance levels for the Olympic Games. But for golf the pinnacle of the men’s game is the four major championships and in the women’s game their five major championships. For team format golf, participation in the Ryder Cup, President’s Cup and Solheim Cup represent the top achievement for all professionals. So for professional golfers, an Olympic medal will never have the same cachet as a major championship victory or participation in a winning Ryder Cup side.

This has led to a number of top golfers asking not to be selected for their national teams. At the time of writing this includes Vijay Singh of Fiji, Adam Scott of Australia and Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel of South Africa. Oosthuizen and Schwartzel together with Branden Grace would have made a formidable South African team. With their withdrawal next in line is Jaco van Zyl at 59th in the world rankings. This has particularly upset Gary Player, who commented, “I would have given anything to play in the Olympics. South Africa had a great team, but now obviously, it will not be as good.”

A contributing factor to the lack of enthusiasm from the pros must be the format of the Olympic event. Instead of being played as a team event in an expanded Ryder Cup style knock-out round format, both the men’s and women’s events will be played as 72-hole individual stroke play tournaments – basically no different from a normal pro tour competition, with players from the same nations competing against each other for the medal places. Consequently there will be none of the team bonding and excitement that we see at the Ryder and Solheim cups.

Of course there can be only three medal winners so in a field of 60 players, the odds are pretty long on winning a medal for any player not in the world top ten. But a greater consideration, which has been cited by Scott, Oosthuizen and Schwartzel, is the impact on their schedules and private lives. The Olympics opens in Rio de Janeiro on 5 August, with the men’s golf competition due to take place from 11 to 14 August and the women’s from 17 to 20 August. Getting to Rio will involve long haul flights for the players and entourages. Most participants are expected to attend the opening ceremony and to stay in the Olympic village. For the men the John Deere Classic on the US PGA tour also runs from 11 to 14 August and has a purse $4.8M.

The top tour pros today have huge demands made on their time by sponsors, the media and tour officials pressurising them to play in as many events as possible. When they are not actually playing they are practising and doing physical training to stay at the top of their game. Carving out some personal family time is challenging. Given all these considerations it is surprising that more top tour pros haven’t declined to play. Commenting on the withdrawals IGF President Peter Dawson stated, “The IGF understands the challenges players face in terms of scheduling this summer and it is regrettable to see a few leading players withdraw from this year’s Games. The Olympics is the world’s greatest celebration of sport and it is exciting and appropriate that golf features in its programme again.”

The IGF’s enthusiasm for Olympic golf is driven by a desire to promote the game and this is laudable. Many countries including, for example, China only provide state funding for athletes that take part in Olympic sports. As a result medal hungry China has spent heavily on its national golf team for the first time. But it’s debatable if this kind of funding or the publicity generated by golf as an Olympic sport, will lift participation in the game worldwide. Apart from the fact that, unlike most track and field athletic sports, you need a fair outlay on equipment even to begin to play golf, you also need a golf course. China’s schizophrenic attitude to golf means that golf course building has been officially banned since 2004 even though massive developments such as the 11 course Mission Hills development near Hong Kong continue to get built. However, such developments are aimed at the tourist market and are unaffordable for the average Chinese citizen.

The Olympics and promoting golf as an Olympic sport are noble ideals. But for the viewers watching golf at the Olympics on TV in Moscow, Mumbai and Lagos actually playing golf will remain as much a possibility as walking on the moon.