Olympics 2016: Women’s Golf Takes Center Stage in Rio

August 16, 2016

On October 8, 1900, The Chicago Tribune ran a two-paragraph story about a North Side woman, with the headline “Golf Winner May Stay Abroad.” Buried on page 7 and accompanied by a black-and-white portrait of a young lady with lowered eyes and a ruffled collar, the article noted that Miss Margaret Abbott “won the prize in the woman’s handicap at the international golf matches at Paris on Saturday.”

The newspaper didn’t know it, and neither did Abbott, but those matches were part of the 1900 Olympics, which took place amid the chaos of the World’s Fair in Paris. Although she died unaware of her place in sports history, Abbott was the first American woman to win an Olympic event, taking home not a gold medal but a porcelain bowl. She remains the defending champion in women’s golf.

One hundred and sixteen years after golf’s debut on the Olympic stage, a new winner will be crowned in the women’s Olympic golf event this week in Rio. With an eye on the future, the world’s best female players are poised to seize the moment.

“They’re looking at this as a golden opportunity,” says Kraig Kann, the LPGA’s chief communications officer. “The Olympics is the grandest stage of them all.”

The Games will generate a level of global exposure that the women do not typically encounter on tour. Rio represents a chance for players to catapult themselves to mainstream fame, the type of Wheaties Box celebrity that female golfers have rarely attained.

Not since 1978 has a female golfer landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated, when Nancy Lopez, laughing, celebrated a stunning season in which she won nine tournaments. David Hudson, author of the book Women in Golf: The Players, The History, and the Future of the Sport, remembers Lopez’s success. “She was nearly a household name,” he says. “We need that to happen again.” Could 2016 be the year the spell is broken? A gold medal could be a golden ticket to stardom outside the ropes.

“Women’s golf needs a female Tiger Woods,” says Paula Welch, a professor at the University of Florida whose research first uncovered Abbott’s lost Olympic triumph. Prize money, visibility, and international participation are all trending up for the LPGA, but to keep growing, the women’s game needs a star whose skill transcends her sport. Someone like Lydia Ko, Brooke Henderson, Lexi Thompson, or Ariya Jutanugarn, all of whom are in the early stages of their careers and eager to grab the spotlight in Rio.

Many of the best players on the men’s side passed on the Games. Scared off by the specter of Zika or exhausted from a jam-packed summer schedule or simply unconvinced of the Olympics’ place among golf’s most important titles, just eight of the top 20 men in the world competed last week. Yet only one woman has turned down the Games. The women, it seems, understand that this opportunity may be fleeting. “You may never get the chance to wear a medal again,” Kann says. Golf will be back in Tokyo in 2020, but its place in the Olympics is far from assured after that.

Kann and many others believe that the Olympics are key to expanding golf’s reach worldwide, that Rio will inspire children around the world to pick up clubs. “Many young people watch the Olympics,” Welch says. The Olympics can and do have a big impact on participation. Following the 2012 Games in London, the number of people who took up running and cycling in Great Britain increased by 17% and 14%, respectively, according to a study conducted by Sport England in 2015. The British team won four gold medals in athletics and 27 total medals in cycling in 2012.

For a photo shoot a few months ago, Lexi Thompson tried on the straw hats and heavy dresses that her predecessors wore at the turn of the century. “I don’t know how they played golf in those outfits,” she said, after standing in the heat and trying to swing in several layers of fabric.

Women’s golf has come a long way since Abbott took first place in an ankle-length skirt. The heirs to her legacy and the legacy of hundreds of talented, record- and barrier-breaking pioneers who came later are ready to make another run at history in Rio. Miss Margaret Abbott, the “fierce competitor,” would be proud.