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Olympic Golf Revealed What's Missing From Our Cherished Biennial International Competitions

Golf Makes a Strong Olympic Case in Rio
Sports Illustrated's Alan Shipnuck says that after an embattled run-up to Rio, the Olympic golf competition was everything the sport could have hoped for. 

Now that the spectacle of Olympic golf is done, what’s left to look forward to this season?

The FedEx Cup? Nah. Nobody cares about the screwy points system, and besides, it resets for the Tour Championship, like a NASCAR race restart that lets drivers get back on the same lap as the leader. So in the unlikely event you were keeping score at home on your FedEx supercomputer, it turns out to be wasted effort.

The Web.com playoffs? This four-tournament series that replaced the old Q school as the only path to the PGA Tour features 150 players competing for 25 low-status Tour cards. You haven’t heard of most of them, and their back-of-the-pack status gives them only half a chance in hell of sticking around long enough to be heard from.

The Ryder Cup? Ouch. Here’s the biggest surprise from Rio. Even though Olympic golf wasn’t a team event and didn’t feature match play, it was better than the Ryder Cup in some ways.

(Insert your audible gasp here!)

The nationalism displayed by the 60 male Olympians was not only inspiring, it reminded us why the Ryder Cup—and the Solheim Cup, Walker Cup and Curtis Cup too, for that matter—are obsolete.

Olympic golf includes the world while the Ryder Cup narrowly focuses on the United States and Europe. It made sense back in the early 20th century when America, Great Britain and Ireland were essentially the only places golf was played. It quit making sense by the 1980s, when the GB&I team was expanded to include all of Europe. That change reinvigorated the Ryder Cup, but it wasn’t enough.

The recent Olympics were about growing the game globally. That’s exactly what’s missing from the Ryder and Solheim Cups—global participation.

If Samuel Ryder were alive and starting the Ryder Cup today, would he set it up as the U.S. versus Europe? Of course not. Great players such as Peter Thomson, Gary Player, Greg Norman, Ernie Els and Nick Price have been excluded from the Ryder Cup because of their nationality.

Ditto in the women’s version. Australia’s Karrie Webb and Mexico’s Lorena Ochoa couldn’t play the Solheim Cup, and with Asian golfers now dominating the world rankings, the U.S. versus Europe feels like the bronze-medal match. No Lydia Ko, no Inbee Park, no Ariya Jutanugarn—hell, 15 of the top 20-ranked players are ineligible for the Solheim. It’s almost turning into a minor-league all-star game.

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Rio exposed the insularity of the Ryder and Solheim cups.

I’ve been a proponent of expanding the Ryder and Solheim Cups for years. My old Ryder suggestion, repeated in print many times, was to make the Presidents Cup the qualifying event for the Ryder Cup. So last year, say, the U.S. would’ve played the International team in the Prez Cup with the winner advancing to face the defending Ryder Cup champion, Europe.

It’s a win-win because it includes the rest of the world. Imagine how much more money the PGA of America could rake in selling TV rights to Asia and Japan and Australia and South Africa the first time the Internationals make the Ryder Cup?

That would turn the Presidents Cup from a ho-hum little "friendly" affair into a do-or-die, must-watch showdown. The winner gets back in the Ryder Cup; the loser has to wait two more years. A team might go six or eight years (or more!) without appearing in the Ryder Cup. Imagine the pressure that could build. The Prez Cup becomes a huge deal, in other words. Maybe more pressure-packed than the Ryder Cup.

The Americans who complain about having to play a team event every year could avoid that problem by winning the Ryder Cup. They’d get a pass at the next year’s Prez Cup and earn a week off. The only big change would be undoing the future Ryder Cup sites. The Ryder Cup winner would get to host the next matches because it wouldn’t make sense for the U.S. and the Internationals to play, say, in France, so sites could be picked only two years ahead. It’s a solvable problem and a small price to pay.

The Solheim Cup could do something similar.

If Olympic golf continues past the 2020 Games in Tokyo and changes to some kind of team format, the Olympics suddenly look a lot more like the global golf festival that Samuel Ryder would have wanted.

Any problems with Olympic golf going the team route could be solved with a qualifying tournament for the countries with lower-ranked players. That could become a big event in itself.

Imagine 25 three-golfer teams in the Olympics. What member of the European squad wouldn’t rather play for his or her country than for a generic team named Europe? Sure, the current Ryder and Solheim Cup teams are united, but nothing beats hearing your national anthem on the medal stand or seeing your country’s flag.

Next month’s Ryder Cup will probably be close and hotly contested, with lots of fist-pumping and jingo-ism, and it will be great fun, as usual. After golf’s return to the Olympics in Rio, though, it’s not going to feel the same as it used to.

Olympic golf, for its many flaws and failings, got the most important thing right: It included the entire world. The Ryder and Solheim Cups should consider it a warning shot across their all-too-exclusive bows.

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