Imagining the 2009 PGA Championship as the 2016 Olympics

Imagining the 2009 PGA Championship as the 2016 Olympics

The game-winner came on the short (352-yard) par-4 14th hole, where Yang wedged in for eagle from 20 yards off the green to take a one-stroke lead.
Robert Beck/SI

Oh, those Olympic committeemen. They have their tricks. Last week the IOC used the PGA Championship at Hazeltine as a top-secret trial run for the 2016 Olympics, at which golf is likely to be one of the 30-some sports in the lineup. (The trial run was so secret that even the IOC didn’t know about it.) So, not only did Y.E. Yang of South Korea win the Wanamaker Trophy, but he also won the trial Olympic golf competition, men’s division. For his work he received a virtual gold medal.

In other top-secret IOC news, Tiger Woods of the U.S. took the virtual silver medal and Lee Westwood of England secured the virtual bronze, in a match of cards with Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland. The tie-breaking match-of-cards part? The committee actually invented that on the fly on Sunday night when they realized they had only one virtual bronze medal on hand. Staging an Olympics is a complicated business, with a million details to work out.

On Sunday night in the Hazeltine press tent, Yang’s agent, Ryan Park, did a superb job in his unannounced tryout for the position of Korean-English translator for the 2016 Olympic golf tournaments, which will include two 72-hole stroke-play events, one for 60 male professionals and the other for a like number of woman pros. (You wanted an Olympic golf event with amateurs? You must still have a Mark Spitz poster on your bedroom wall.)

Korean women are already a dominant force in women’s golf. (There are 46 Koreans on the LPGA tour.) As for the Korean men, there’s Yang and K.J. Choi right now, established talents, and who knows what the next seven years will bring?

Asked to predict how many real medals Korean golfers will win in the summer of ’16, Yang, through Park, said, “Well, there are still a lot of aspiring golfers in Korea. In 2016 I think Korea has a very good chance. We might not win the gold, but I do think Korea has a good chance to win a few medals, silver and bronze. And who knows? I think that Korea has a really good chance at winning gold as well, actually.”

In July 2016 Yang will be 44, Tiger will be 40 and Westwood will be 43. Will they be representing their countries, along with their home tours and themselves, when golf is contested in the Olympics for the first time since 1904? A shake of the Magic 8-Ball: reply hazy, try again. Tiger says he wants to play, under two conditions. One, that he’s not retired. Two, that he makes the team. Tiger’s father, Earl, was a big Olympic buff. Tiger’s a big Olympic buff. He’s not going to be retired. He’s not going to not qualify. For Westwood and Yang, it’s harder to say.

According to a proposal submitted to the IOC by the International Golf Federation’s Olympic Golf Committee, led by PGA Tour executive vice president Ty Votaw, the top 15 ranked players in the world will qualify automatically. After that, spots 16 through 60 will be decided by going straight down the world rankings, with this game-changing proviso: For those 45 spots, no country will be allowed to have more than two representatives.

That’s good news for Vijay Singh. Singh will be 53 in ’16, yet he wants to play. Let’s say Singh is still playing the regular Tour then. Let’s say his World Ranking is 200th. Let’s say no Fijian is ranked higher. According to an SI analysis of the selection process, he’d be a lock to make the 60-man Olympic field. Strange, but true. That’s because of the two-per-country rule. It will eliminate scores of elite golfers, but that same rule will help create places for players from any number of countries. China! India! Belgium!

But the news would not be so good for traditional golfing powers. For instance, let’s say in 2016 Ian Poulter and Ross Fisher and Lee Westwood, all from the United Kingdom, are ranked 16th, 17th and 18th in the world, respectively. In that scenario Westwood would be out. Bad for Lee. But as the Olympics thrive on controversy — and also on little teams that could, like the Jamaican bobsled team — it’s all good. In the grand scheme of things it all evens out. According to an SI analysis, on the women’s side the last player in, based on current rankings, would be Marta Silva, ranked 723rd in the world. The Portuguese Golf Federation should be throwing a party.

In any event the devil is in the details, right? Votaw said on Sunday night that after further review, three players per country, after the top 15, might be a better recipe. That would most likely mean fewer countries but more brand-name players. Politics is all about compromise, and the Olympics are, of course, highly political. As for Votaw, he has other things on his mind, like where the ’16 Games will be played. The IOC is considering four bids, from Chicago, Madrid, Tokyo and Rio de Janeiro. In October the IOC will announce the winning city. Votaw says the IGF is open to private clubs or public courses or courses not even built yet. In Madrid and Tokyo golf is played chiefly at private clubs. Chicago has a host of options. There are courses in Rio, but they would need serious modification to challenge Tiger Woods.

And while another 72-hole, stroke-play, every-golfer-for-himself tournament with a tiny field may not sound like the most creative way to stage an Olympic competition, it has one advantage. It is, Votaw says, what the players want. In 1996, the last time there was a push for Olympic golf, many of the leading pros were against the idea of spending another week playing only for pride. At the PGA the players — guinea pigs in a grand IOC experiment — expressed unreserved enthusiasm for the idea.

McIlory, who tied for third at Hazeltine, was uninterested in the idea of Olympic golf before he came to America for his first prolonged visit as a pro in March. Then he was a teenager. Now he’s 20, and by the time he got to Chaska, Minn., he’d had a change of heart. “The more I think about it, the more it will be great for golf just to globalize the game,” said McIlroy, the sport’s wisest young man. “At the start I sort of thought it’s not fair for the other athletes who train four years for the Olympics at the height of their careers. But I can see this being great for golf.” At the end of the day, golfers will always put their game first. It’s in their blood.

If golf is added to the Olympic roster in October, as expected, the 2016 season will be a thrill a minute, or something like that. The Masters in April. The Players Championship in May. The U.S. Open in June. The British Open and the Olympics and the PGA over the course of the summer. The Ryder Cup at Hazeltine in September.

Then, maybe, Tiger will be ready to retire. In the meantime he’ll be looking for a couple of things that Jack Nicklaus doesn’t have. Namely, a 19th professional major and one real Olympic gold medal.

Only 12 players made the cut in all four major championships this season. Here’s how they rank based on average finish.

Masters U.S. British PGA Average Finish
Henrik Stenson 38 9 13 T6 16.5
Ross Fisher 30 5 13 19 16.75
Lee Westwood 43 23 T3 T3 18
Graeme McDowell 17 18 34 T10 19.75
Rory McIlroy 20 T10 47 T3 20
Camilo Villegas 13 33 13 51 27.5
Vijay Singh 30 27 38 16 27.75
Jim Furyk T10 33 34 63 35
Kenny Perry T2 44 52 43 35.25
Angel Cabrera 1 54 24 63 35.5
Kevin Sutherland 46 33 60 32 42.75
Sean O’Hair T10 23 65 75 43.25