There was a while there when I was excited about the prospect of golf in the Olympics. I mean…I love golf, and I love cheering for Team USA in anything and everything, so it seemed like a no-lose situation. Unfortunately, the more I learned about it, the less excited I was. Back in October of 2009, the International Olympic Committee made the decision to reintroduce golf for the 2016 and 2020 games. Nearly every decision they’ve made since has rendered golf’s return to the Olympics irrelevant, if not regrettable.
The first question golf enthusiasts had when they heard the news: what’s the format?
Would it be a competition for elite amateurs, a truly global stage for emerging talent worldwide? Maybe the committee would get creative, and introduce a team component, perhaps something similar to the NCAA championships, where a few days of stroke play winnow down the field of teams before medals are decided with match play. Best ball? Alternate shot? Bingo Bango Bongo? Something…anything? Nope. Seventy-two holes of stroke play with absolutely no team component whatsoever. Exactly what golf fans get every other week of the year (except for one WGC event and the Ryder/Presidents Cup). This was an awful decision by…whoever made it. The Olympics presented a fresh opportunity to create something new and exciting in the world of golf, and the organizers punted. Additionally, since each country is limited to a maximum of four competitors, it’s a boring-old 72 holes of stroke play with an already watered-down field that continues to get weaker by the day.
The players that have already withdrawn from consideration for spots at the Olympics is a growing list of stars of the game: Jason Day, Rory McIlroy, and Adam Scott are all out. So are major champions Charl Schwartzel, Louis Oosthuizen, Graeme McDowell, and Vijay Singh. Several other players that will be eligible haven’t formally withdrawn their names, but are clearly wavering…Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler, and Dustin Johnson all fit into that group. Nearly every player cites concerns over Zika virus as their justification. I have no idea how many of them are ACTUALLY concerned about contracting Zika, but it’s certainly an understandable and convenient out. I’m not a doctor (surprise!!), and I don’t totally understand the risks of Zika, but I fully respect their prerogative to put concerns about family health first. Plus, one would assume that golfers (who spend 7 or 8 hours a day outside during a given tournament week) would be at some elevated level of risk for a virus that’s passed through mosquito bites. More so than, say, fencers, certainly. Regardless of their actual concerns over Zika, it’s a perfect excuse. It’s acceptable from a public relations standpoint, and it saves players from having to say, “Look, I’m sorry, but that’s a good time for a break, and from what I hear the course isn’t that great, and I don’t want to get robbed at gunpoint off of Copacabana Beach, so I’m gonna sit this one out… .”
The 2016 PGA Tour schedule has already been compressed and compromised to fit in the Olympics. Three major championships, starting with the US Open, will be played over six weeks. Top European players are skipping this week’s Bridgestone Invitational, a World Golf Championship event, to play in the French Open. Typically, if you qualify to play in a WGC, you play. They’re big money events with lots of world ranking points up for grabs, but the French Open is steeped in tradition, a marquee event on the European Tour, with lots of Ryder Cup points at stake. The amended schedule is forcing players to make decisions that end up hurting two separate events.
These guys don’t want to have to take a week to fly to Brazil to play a weak-field event for no money. Maybe that’s cynical and violates the “Olympic spirit,” but I get it. Golfers don’t have guaranteed contracts. They only get paid when they play well. When they do “play for free” at a Ryder Cup, they’re playing for their country, and their team. I understand that Olympic golfers will technically be representing their respective countries, but it’s an individual competition. The reason players strive to make a Ryder Cup team is to be a part of a team. They’ll never feel more pressure in their professional golfing lives because it’s the only time their play will impact the results of someone else. You hit one out of bounds on the back nine at a major, and you and your family are disappointed, but that’s pretty much it. If you hit one OB with a match on the line at the Ryder Cup, and you’ve not only let down yourself, but your partner, your teammates, captain, and, to a certain extent, your country as well. Golfers won’t feel that way in Rio. Sure, every competitor will want to stand atop the podium and hear their national anthem…but I guarantee they would care MORE if they did it as members of a team. A gold medal is just another trophy for golfers. There’s no history there. If today’s crop of top professional golfers had memories of Arnie, Jack, Player, Seve, Faldo, and Tiger standing proudly atop medal podiums, more would care.
I want to be excited for Olympic golf. Hopefully, by Tokyo 2020, the powers-that-be will realize that their problems attracting a field full of top talent to Rio has more to do with their flawed decisions than it does with a virus.