Golf Made a Spectacular Olympic Case in Rio. IOC, Take Note!

August 24, 2016

TO: IOC members

FROM: An interested party

RE: Golf’s future in the Games

As you know, next year you will vote on golf’s future in the Olympics. Ahead of these Games a few of your fellow voters understandably expressed displeasure about so many top (male) golfers boycotting Rio. These pampered players looked silly before the Games and now appear downright ridiculous, and no doubt golf had a lot of fence-mending to do to regain the respect of your organization. Before you decide the sport’s fate I thought I should bring a few things to your attention. 

Perhaps you missed Julieta Granada at the opening ceremony; after all, she’s petite, and the Paraguayan flag she was carrying was quite large. Granada waved it so enthusiastically that her arms were sore afterward. Like the other female golfers who walked with their country, Granada flew to Rio nearly two weeks before their competition began, just to support her national team and be part of a special experience. That was a big effort that deserves to be recognized.

I’m assuming you saw some of the endless social media posts from the golfers at the many events they attended. Their enthusiasm was indeed quite refreshing. As Bubba Watson said, “I’m having so much fun hanging with the athletes. I mean, golf just gets in my way. I want to go watch the other sports.” That was nice, but did you catch how many athletes came out to watch golf? 

Half of the Sweden’s team handball squad followed Henrik Stenson. Rickie Fowler was trailed by a slew of Olympians (to say nothing of Matthew McConaughey), and seemingly everywhere you looked in the gallery a very tall, very fit person was wearing a team sweatsuit, or a medal, or both. 

Many of these jocks had never been to a big-time tournament, and the mutual admiration was moving.  Said Lydia Ko, “That’s been one of the greatest memories of this week is to see the other New Zealand athletes, see the New Zealand flag out there and them waving and shouting and supporting. It’s been amazing. I feel like coming down the stretch [when she was battling for a medal], that really helped me to kind of push through. I knew that I wasn’t only doing this for me and not only for my team, but for the other athletes that were here and for the whole of New Zealand. Some of the other athletes told me what a great experience it was for them and that they’re glad golf is in the Olympics. That was awesome to hear.”

While many Olympic sports are dominated by the same country year after year, the golf medals were a testament to the game’s diversity: hardware went to Asia (China, Korea), Europe (Great Britain, Sweden), North America (U.S.) and the antipodes (New Zealand). The women’s course record was shot by a Russian, Maria Verchenova, who greatly enlivened the final- round telecast with her style and beauty, to say nothing of the spectacularly goofy uniform of her caddie. In all, more than three dozen nations were represented in the golf competition, making it among the most democratic of all the Olympic sports.

There will be a lot of talk about the legacy of these Games, and it’s easy to imagine that the empty stadiums will be an easy metaphor. But the Olympic course is going to be an enduring monument to golf’s wildly successful reentry into the Games. The course was a home run. It is already the most important championship venue in South America, and maybe anywhere in the world outside the U.S. and British Isles. Its stature will only continue to grow. In the coming months the Olympic course will host the Brazilian Open (a PGA Tour Latinoamerica event) and a event. The stewards of the course are thinking big, hoping to attract a European tour stop, or even a World Golf Championship. It will also play an important role at the grass-roots level as Rio’s only public 18-hole layout. Already in the works are a teaching academy geared toward junior golfers and a caddie-training program. Few Olympic venues ever will be so important long after the Games have left town.

Lastly, I have covered big-time golf for 23 years, and you should know that there was something very special and unique about the feeling of the Olympic competition. I’ve never seen so many tears from so many adults as the golfers in Rio produced. It started at the opening ceremony, with the misty eyes of Granada and golf’s other proud flag bearer, Siddikur Rahman of Bangladesh. Adilson da Silva of Brazil hit the first shot of the men’s competition, and he was still leaking tears well after his round had ended. As Inbee Park clinched her gold medal, her three fellow golfers from Korea and their queenly captain, Se Ri Pak, were hugging behind the 18th green and bawling like the schoolgirls in “A Hard Day’s Night.” More bitterly, there was the U.S.’s Gerina Piller. She had a medal in her grasp, but a handful of closing bogeys knocked her off the podium. Afterward she cried so hard she was left gasping for air.

Does golf belong in the Olympics? The answer was streaming down the cheeks of the competitors.