Olympic golf plan leaves out world’s best players

April 1, 2009

If golf is successful in its bid to become an Olympic event, it’s going to be one suspect outing. I use the term outing because it seems more appropriate than tournament.

You probably missed the announcement of the proposed Olympic golf format on account of the return of Tiger Woods to active duty, which blotted out the sun in the golf world for a couple of weeks. Under the proposal, Olympic golf in 2016 would be an individual event, medal play over 72 holes, with fields of 60 men and 60 women.

The catch is, the fields aren’t going to be made up of the best 60 players. A handful of players will come from the top of the rankings, a few from the middle, and, in the name of international diplomacy, a bunch from the bottom.

Olympic fields would be based entirely on the world rankings. (Sorry about that, amateurs.) The top 15 players will automatically be in the field, no matter where they’re from. The rest of the 60-player field will be filled by the remaining highest-ranked players whose countries don’t already have two players in the field. In other words, there is a limit of two players per country, with an exception for those in the top 15.

If the Olympic lineup had been made last week, the United States would have had a six-member team featuring Tiger Woods (1), Phil Mickelson (2), Kenny Perry (10), Steve Stricker (11), Jim Furyk (13) and Anthony Kim (14). No other Americans could get into the field because the U.S. would have already filled its two slots. No Stewart Cink (ranked 18th), no Justin Leonard (25th), and so on.

An approximate Olympic tournament field of 60 players, based on last week’s rankings, is below. The event would have only 27 of the top 50 men in the world, and only 36 of the top 100. Yes, the top 15 players would all be there, but only 10 of the next 35 highest-ranked players would be in. Ten players who rank outside the top 200 would be on the list. In 2008, even ordinary tour stops like the PODS Championship had stronger numbers than that. In fact, six Olympic competitors on this list aren’t among the top 300 in the world, including Henrik Bjornstad of Norway, ranked 398th.

That’s right, No. 398 would get in the Olympics, but the last two Masters champions, Trevor Immelman and Zach Johnson, would not. Sorry, Trevor, but Ernie Els and Retief Goosen rank ahead of you for South Africa.

The United Kingdom takes a hit because Scotland, England and Wales compete together as Great Britain, which means it gets only two entrants —England’s Paul Casey, 12th; and England’s Lee Westwood, 15th. Northern Ireland athletes can compete for Great Britain or Ireland so Rory McIlroy, ranked 17th, would be in the Olympics if he chose to join Padraig Harrington to represent Ireland. But if he chose Great Britain, he’d be out. Also out? Graeme McDowell, Justin Rose, Luke Donald and Ryder Cup star Ian Poulter.

Colin Montgomerie and Darren Clarke would be absent, but Alessandro Tadini, an Italian ranked 333rd in the world, and Angelo Que of the Phillipines, 389th, would join Bjornstad in the Olympic who’s-who combo platter — as in, who’s not here and who the hell is that?

The depth of field is even more appalling in the women’s event, which would include nearly as many players ranked outside the top 300 (17 of them) as in the top 20 (18). Any player who has competed for several years and hasn’t cracked the top 300 of the Rolex Rankings is not going to be able to compete against the world’s elite players..

Based on the March 16-22 rankings, the U.S. women would field a three-player team of Paula Creamer, ranked third; Angela Stanford, sixth; and Cristie Kerr, eighth.

The women’s field would have 18 of the top 20 players, 21 of the top 50 and only 24 of the top 100. Korea has 11 players among the top 30 but only four make its Olympic squad — Ji-Yai Shin, Seon-Hwa Lee, Jeong Jang and Eun-Hee Ji.

Inbee Park, the youngest U.S. Open champion in history, isn’t in. Neither is Hee-Won Han, Se Ri Pak or Jee Young Lee. Who else is missing? Morgan Pressel, Juli Inkster, Laura Diaz, Laura Davies and Ai Miyazato, to name a few.

Using this system, though, Russia gets an Olympian in Maria Verchenova, ranked 346th. She played 27 events in 2008, had two top-10 finishes and was a cumulative 190 over par for the year. Tell me again why she should be in the Olympics instead of Inbee Park?

Eva Steinberger of Austria ranks 577th. She’s in. Raise your hand if you didn’t know the women’s rankings went that high. Seven Olympians wouldn’t rank among the top 500. What are they doing on the same course with Ochoa?

This issue isn’t new to the Olympics. In many other sports, top athletes are left at home. A country could have eight of the ten best 100-meter sprinters, but only three can compete at the Olympics. The argument here, I’m sure, is that the Olympics would be the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that will spark the development of golf in countries where the competition is weak. Funny, golf has spread globally already without the Olympic movement.

Do I have a better idea for an Olympic tournament? No, and that’s my point. The fact that a would-be global championship has to be jury-rigged to include a bunch of players who aren’t competitive is the telltale sign that Olympic golf is a bad idea. A world title shouldn’t be decided among a field of 25 or 30 legitimate contenders. Olympic golf might make more sense as a team sport with three-, four- or five-person teams. The World Cup, a World Golf Championship event, is played with 28 two-man teams in best-ball and foursomes format, with qualifying events already in place. The World Cup could have been altered to serve as the Olympics every fourth year, although that would present a weak field, too.

If golf is going to be included in the Olympics, it deserves to be one of the world’s best golf events. The Olympic tournament should rival a major championship in terms of quality, significance and reach. It’s not going to happen with only 60 players in the field. Not when the 60 includes the likes of Ellen Smets of Belgium, ranked 559th, and Alexandre Rocha of Brazil, ranked 396th. Not even close.

Here’s an approximation of how the men’s teams would look under the proposed format if selected now

(March 22-29 world ranking in parentheses)

Argentina 2: Andres Romero (40), Angel Cabrera (63)
Australia 2: Geoff Ogilvy (4), Adam Scott (21)
Austria 1: Markus Brier (187)
Brazil 1: Alexandre Rocha (396)
Canada 2: Mike Weir (19), Stephen Ames (42)
Chile 1: Felipe Aguilar (135)
China 1: Liang Wen-Chong (134)
Colombia 1: Camilo Villegas (7)
Denmark 2: Soren Kjeldsen (54) Anders Hansen (57)
Fiji 1: Vijay Singh (6)
Finland 1: Mikko Illonen (266)
France 2: Gregory Havret (131), Gregory Bourdy (157)
Germany 2: Martin Kaymer (20), Alex Cejka (265)
Great Britain 2: Paul Casey (12); Lee Westwood (15)
Italy 2: Francesco Molinari (82), Alessandro Tadini (333)
India 2: Jeev Milkha Singh (28), Jyoti Rhandawa (102)
Ireland 2: Padraig Harrington (5), Rory McIlroy (17)
Japan 2: Shingo Katayama (43), Ryo Ishikawa (69)
Korea 2: K.J. Choi (23), Charlie Wi (96)
Malaysia 2: Ben Leong (308), Iain Steel (329)
Netherlands 2: Taco Remkes (141), Robert-Jan Dierksen (151)
New Zealand 2: David Smail (90), Mark Brown (129)
Norway 1: Henrik Bjornstad (398)
Portugal 1: Jose-Filipe Lima (422)
Phillipines 2: Juvic Pagunsan (235), Angelo Que (389)
South Africa 2: Ernie Els (16), Retief Goosen (22)
Singapore 1: Lam Chih-Bing Lam (193)
Spain 2: Sergio Garcia (3), Alvaro Quiros (26)
Sweden 2: Robert Karlsson (8), Henrik Stenson (9)
Taiwan 2: Lin Wen-Tang (60); Lu Wen-Teh (208)
Thailand 2: Prayad Marksaeng (50), Thongchai Jaidee (67)
United States 6: Tiger Woods (1), Phil Mickelson (2), Kenny Perry (10), Steve Stricker (11), Jim Furyk (13), Anthony Kim (14)
Zimbabwe 2: Brendan de Jonge (180); Marc Cayeux (237)