Reigning Olympic golf champion George Lyon won’t be back to defend his title in Rio. The reasoning is simple: if Lyon were still alive, he’d be 158 years old. It’s safe to say golf has changed greatly since the 1904 Summer Games, where 74 golfers from the United States and three from Canada last competed for gold in St. Louis, Missouri. The globalization of the sport has seen competitors from dozens of countries competing on the PGA Tour and other tours. Although the worldwide popularity of golf has benefitted from this, does golf’s global nature actually hurt its Olympic appeal?
Although the idea might sound strange, it’s actually pretty simple. The Olympics is the largest athletic competition in the world. For the typical Olympic sport, the Olympics is as big as it gets. All of a sport’s best athletes spend their whole lives training for the honor of competing in the games and earning a medal for their country. With golf, however, this isn’t the case. Most of the world’s best golfers regularly compete against each other on a weekly basis. The greatest achievement in golf is not, and likely will not become, winning gold in the Olympics, a tournament which takes place only once every four years; it will remain putting on the green jacket, awarded to winners of The Masters, the most prestigious of golf’s four major tournaments.
This is evidenced by the withdrawal of the current top four professional male golfers (Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, and Rory McIlroy) from the Olympics over concerns regarding the Zika virus. You can’t convince me these players would’ve dropped out of The Masters under similar circumstances. The Olympic field is much weaker than a major tournament not only due to the numerous dropouts but also because of the competition format itself. The field size of 60 players isn’t half the number of competitors in PGA events, and the composition of that field is weaker as well. The United States only sent four golfers to Rio, despite having 27 of the top 60 ranked players in the world. Host nation Brazil’s sole participant, Adilson da Silva, is ranked 288th. Portugal’s Jose-Filipe Lima is 405th.
Without as much individual prestige, a saving grace for Olympic golf is the idea of participating specifically for your country. With the Ryder and Presidents Cups, athletes worldwide already have the ability to compete for their nation. However, the Olympics puts each individual country in the spotlight, instead of a Team Europe or Team World competing against the United States.
The Olympics gives golf a unique chance to further its growth around the world and change some of the stereotypes surrounding the sport. Brazil, a country of 200 million people, has very few professional golfers, and only about 125 golf courses in the whole country. Golf is seen as little more than a sport for the rich, an unfortunate view limiting appeal for the game not just in Brazil, but globally. During practice rounds for Olympic competition, golfers are practicing with not only members of other countries, but opposite genders, which is very uncommon. Already golf has undergone the Olympic effect of athletes experiencing different cultures and unifying, respecting the work everyone has put in to achieve the common goal of winning gold.
That mission, currently being undertaken by 11,000 some odd athletes and 120 golfers, is something I think many people who believe golf should not be in the Olympics are undervaluing. We won’t truly know how successful Olympic golf is for another two weeks, after both the men’s and women’s tournaments have ended. There is something unique about winning an Olympic medal which can’t be appropriately put into words. By the end of Rio 2016, I’d wager many of those who dropped out will regret their decision. I think in some ways female golfers already understand this, as no top female players withdrew from the games.
Golf is guaranteed a spot in the Tokyo 2020 games, after which it’s permanency will be reevaluated. There will be important things to be learned from Rio, and it’s unrealistic to expect golf to be perfect in its first showing in over a century. Four years from now, higher quality athletes will be competing, and hopefully, structural changes will allow for a team competition, which I see as important for the continuation of golf at the Olympics. I’m not sure about the specifics, but perhaps a certain amount of countries highest in the world rankings will each get to send four members to compete as a team with a combined score, while each athlete, including those from countries not represented in the team competition, will still be able to compete for an individual medal.
Despite the Olympics’ current status as a supplemental tournament rather than the biggest golf tournament in the world, I still support golf’s inclusion in the Olympics and believe the potential is there for successes in Rio, Tokyo, and beyond. It’s been far too long since golf has been featured in the Summer Games, and it deserves to maintain that position moving forward.