Golf returns to Olympics in 2016, but many questions remain

August 18, 2012

One thing we know for sure: in Rio, golf will be returning to the Olympics for the first time since 1904, when the United States and Canada were the only two competing countries. The sport has gone global in the last century, but clearly the Olympics and golf have a little reacquainting to do. Until the post was recently removed, Rio’s official site describes the sport thusly: “The athletes compete individually on grass fields that have different configurations. There are varied golf courses leading to holes with orange-size diameter. The goal is to roll the ball into the hole with the fewer number of strikes as possible.” Uh, OK!

Though the summer of 2016 will feature the U.S. Open (which dates to 1895), the British Open (1860), the PGA Championship (1916) and the Ryder Cup (1927), many of today’s top players are professing excitement at the prospect of playing for gold instead of the usual lucre. Tiger Woods will be 40 then but has said repeatedly he hopes to represent his country. ”It’s a big deal because it’s the first one in so long,” he said.

But golf’s reentry to the Olympics has come with an undercurrent of controversy and any number of lingering questions. Everything from the format of the competition to the inability to get the host course built remains up in the air. At the tail end of the London Games the AP’s Tim Dahlberg voiced a more all-encompassing complaint: “There's nothing special about golf's best players getting together for a big tournament, because they do it probably 10 times a year and already compete for their country in the Ryder and President cups.”

Indeed, golf will join tennis and men’s basketball as sports for which the Olympics is an important competition but not the pinnacle of achievement. Part of the lack of enthusiasm for Olympic golf is the proposed format: individuals competing in four rounds of stroke play, just like the Masters and U.S. Women’s Open and just about every other important golf tournament. Match play would have highlighted the Olympics’ now-or-never ethos. Two-person teams would have emphasized the collective pursuit of representing one’s country instead of individual glory. But instead we are saddled with an unimaginative four-day slog. One of the PGA Tour’s most thoughtful players, Joe Ogilvie, spoke for many when he tweeted, “Olympic golf is doomed to fail if they maintain a 72 hole stroke play format. A team format is a must.”

There has been enough squawking about the format that the leadership of the International Golf Federation, which spearheaded the movement to get golf back in the Games, has signaled a willingness to re-examine the Olympics format. Peter Dawson, the IGF president, said last month, “There are a number of thoughts that perhaps the format is a little stereotyped…Could we get a team competition in amongst it, as well, is really what's on my mind more than anything else.”

Ty Votaw, vice president of the IGF, subsequently said it is highly unlikely the format will change for 2016 but that it would be rethought for 2020. We’ll see.

The qualifying criteria for the 60-man and 60-woman fields is also nettlesome. There is no cut-throat qualifying tournament for each country, at which underdogs can prevail and folk heroes be born. Instead, the Olympic field will be filled out through the World Rankings, with all of its fuzzy math. The top 15 in the ranking will automatically qualify for the Games, with the caveat that only four players from any one country can go to Rio. Using this week’s rankings, the American contingent would be Woods, Webb Simpson, Bubba Watson and Jason Dufner, while Steve Stricker, the 10th ranked player in the world, would be stuck at home, watching the tape-delayed coverage. So would four other Yanks who are in the top 15 in the world.

Beyond the top 15, each country gets no more than two of the next highest-ranked players. (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will compete as Great Britain. Players from Northern Ireland—notably boy king Rory McIlory—will have the option of playing for Ireland.) On the men’s side, this will likely mean going beyond number 300 in the World Ranking to fill out the Olympic field. On the women’s side, it’s possible we’ll see the 600th ranked player in the world. Sixty is already a very small number of competitors; the inclusion of so many fringe players further devalues the event.

Questions also remain about the playing field that will await. Gil Hanse was an inspired choice to design the Olympic course, but political and legal squabbles surrounding the selected site have prevented construction from beginning. Hanse has said he expects to do so before the end of the year, but that may be optimistic. Still, he will be moving to Rio in November to oversee the project and remains bullish about the site, recently telling, “We are excited about the land, and the more time we get to spend on it, the more interesting the natural features we are finding appear to be.” The sandy terrain has drawn comparisons to Australia’s famed Royal Melbourne, and with its lagoons and mangrove stands it should be telegenic. Hopefully Hanse won’t still be laying sod on the day of Rio’s opening ceremonies.

For all the question marks, there is no question that inclusion in the Olympics is vital to golf’s growth. Countries without strong golfing traditions are suddenly pouring money into player development. Will winning a gold medal ever mean as much as claiming a green jacket? Probably not. But it’s cool that players can now dream of doing both.