For Lydia Ko & Friends, Rio Offers Olympian Possibilities
Now come the ladies. The women's Olympic golf program is identical to the men's: individual stroke play over 72 holes, no cut, 60 players, no more than four from any country. Except for one notable difference. The men's golf was superb, both in the quality of the play and its meaning. The world's best women golfers realized immediately that golf in the Olympics is a huge opportunity. This should be even better.
You know the women get it. Here's the proof: There's not a single notable absentee. Lydia Ko. Lexi Thompson. Stacy Lewis. Inbee Park. Suzann Pettersen. Charley Hull. They're all playing.
A couple of weeks back, I happened to see Laetitia Beck, Israel's lone golf representative at the Olympics. I asked her if she was concerned about Zika or security. "Not at all," she said. She knows what Lydia Ko knows: This could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Carpe diem!
Or carpe four diems. The event will start on Wednesday and conclude on Saturday, on the penultimate day of these 2016 Summer Games, played on the same course the men just played. The women on golf's main stage! It's about time.
On Sunday, when Justin Rose was standing on a podium singing "God Save the Queen" and wearing a new necklace, some of the women were on the course, getting in some practice. Talk about champing at the bit.
The stars have aligned for this to be the most important event in women's golf. Bigger than Annika Sorenstam playing the Colonial in 2003. Bigger than Nancy Lopez winning the LPGA Championship in 1978, the year she claimed nine events. Bigger than Mickey Wright winning the 1961 U.S. Open by six over Betsy Rawls. Why? Because this is the Olympics. The world is watching.
We don't know to what degree the Olympics might influence the growth of the game in places like China and India. What we do know is that golf in the Olympics cannot hurt. It can only help.
The last time women's golf had a moment remotely similar to this was in 2014, when the U.S. Women's Open was played at Pinehurst No. 2 in the week immediately after the men. Michelle Wie won, with Lewis chasing her. It was a memorable championship, one of the best the women have ever put on.
Having the men and women share the venue added immeasurably to the excitement. That will be the case this week too, and then some. But it will be different too.
At Pinehurst, Wie earned $720,000 for her win, Lewis $432,000 for being the runner-up and Stephanie Meadow $271,000 for taking third. A week earlier, Martin Kaymer took home $1.6 million for his eight-shot win, while Rickie Fowler and Eric Compton each got $789,000 for sharing second. At the Olympics the women will be playing for exactly what the men played for: bronze, silver, gold, immortality, memories that will last for the rest of their lives.
There's nothing in sports with less gender bias than the Olympics, summer and winter. Which would you rather watch: women's swimming or men's? Women's figure skating or men's? Women's volleyball or men's?
If you follow golf at all, Lexi and Lydia and Stacy and Suzann are familiar names to you. You may be less familiar with Sei Young Kim of South Korea, Ariya Jutanugarn of Thailand and Shanshan Feng of China. There are millions—many millions—of people around the world who would not know those names now. There's no shame if you are among them. But you'll know those names by the time the Olympic flame is extinguished on Sunday night. That is, you will if they are in position to medal and if you are watching. Until last week, I knew nothing about Marcus Fraser, the Aussie who took the lead after a first-round 63. He played in the final group on Saturday and Sunday and handled himself well, tying for fifth. He made a name for himself. There are at least two dozen women who can pull a Marcus Fraser this week.
Last month at the British Open, Rory McIlory was asked which Olympic events he would watch on TV. He replied, "I'll watch track and field, swimming, diving—you know, ones that matter." He was just being honest, and his point was clear. The best male golfers have four or five chances per year to strut their stuff on the global stage.
The women don't have those same opportunities, but this week they do. And that's why it is so significant.
"Ever since they announced that golf would be in the 2016 Olympics in Rio, I said I want to get myself to Brazil," Ko said in a tweet three months ago. "It's just been a dream. I feel so fortunate that we're getting this opportunity to be in the Olympics."
She didn't need to hype her statement with a bunch of exclamation marks, the way people do these days. Lydia Ko and 59 other women are playing in the Olympics. The stakes were high for the men and they are even higher for the women. No hype is necessary. The women understand the moment. That's why it will be so good. That's why it will trickle down to us.