About the only thing that requires more patience than golf is the grinding wheels of Olympic politics. Now, after a 112-year absence, golf is likely to return to the Games. Last week the International Olympic Committee executive board recommended that golf, along with rugby, receive a spot on the Olympic menu for the 2016 Games and beyond. (The official nod from the full IOC membership is expected in October, when the host city will also be voted on.) Tiger Woods will be 40 in the summer of ’16, and he wants to play. He grew up watching Carl Lewis and Dream Teamers, and his Green Beret father used to say that Tiger could have been an Olympic high hurdler. Of course he wants to go for the gold.
It had to happen; the game is so bloody international now. An Argentine won the Masters, an American won the British Open, and in last weekend’s PGA eight countries were represented in the top nine, including South Korea, the home of champion Y.E. Yang.
How things change. In the years leading up to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Billy Payne, the mover and shaker behind those Games, tried to push golf into the lineup. He even got Augusta National, an all-male club closed in the summer, to agree to host men’s and women’s tournaments. But Payne, a master salesman, couldn’t close the deal. There were threats of pickets at Augusta because of the club’s racist and sexist history. There was an unenthusiastic IOC, which told Payne his application was too late. There were pros who showed little interest in Olympic golf. (Said Mark O’Meara, “We play the Ryder Cup. There’s no pay in that. We play the Presidents Cup. There’s no pay in that. When is enough enough?”)
Thirteen years later Billy Payne is the chairman of Augusta National, the IOC wants golf and golf wants in. So what happened? Tiger Woods happened. The M.O. of the Olympics movement is to be the ultimate showcase for the world’s best athletes playing truly international sports. In other words, the Olympics need Tiger and, luckily for the cause, Earl Woods was a track and field man. On the other side, golf’s governing bodies want (and need) the global exposure the Olympics provide. How do you say win-win in Mandarin?
There’s been a cultural shift since ’96, the year Woods turned pro. The game is a now a mainstream sport. Faster? The favorite driving-range subject on Tour is ball speed. Higher? Even the bunters are flying it 275 yards. Stronger? Camilo Villegas is built like Sugar Ray Leonard in his prime. It’s as if the ancient Olympic motto — Citius, Altius, Fortius — was written for golf.
Olympic golf can do a world of good. It can provide a crash course for Generation Tweet in the Olympics’ true and noble ideals, the ones straight out of Chariots of Fire and the life and times of Jesse Owens: graciousness, sportsmanship, fair play. Have you ever seen the name of a golfer in boldface in your sports- section police blotter? Rounds end in handshakes, and tournaments end in hugs. Country-club golf, with its horrid history of exclusion, has almost nothing to do with the game that Tiger Woods and his cohorts play for big bucks. Angel Cabrera of Argentina quit school in the sixth grade. All he had was drive and good eye-hand coordination. In April he won the Masters.
And, as this is a real marriage, the Olympics surely will be good for golf. An estimated 35 million people watched Cabrera’s win on TV across the world. At the Beijing Games an estimated 27 million people in the U.S. alone watched Rafael Nadal win gold in tennis — another onetime country-club sport now in the Olympics. Golf’s growth in the U.S. and the United Kingdom has been flat for years, but its potential to grow in India and South America and China is just about limitless. Can you imagine what the Chinese government, still motivated by a serious case of medal envy, will do to make sure millions of Chinese kids with drive and good eye-hand coordination get a golf club in their hands? In the board rooms at Callaway and Titleist and Nike, grown men are panting.
The 2016 Games will be held in either Chicago (a great golf town) or Tokyo (a good one) or Madrid (a fair one) or Rio de Janeiro (not a golf town at all, but what a place — and six years is plenty of time to build a course). The location almost doesn’t matter. Other things are more important. The current proposal, drafted by a committee of the International Golf Federation led by Tour executive Ty Votaw, calls for four-day, 72-hole stroke-play individual (not team) events, one for 60 women, the other one for 60 men. (The 60 will be selected based on the world rankings. The top 15 are automatically eligible, and after that there’s a maximum of two golfers per country.) It’s not a creative format, but it’s not a fickle one, either. (Tiger likes it.) Sixty is more of a concern. You need at least double that number if you want golfing gravitas.
Details, details. The important thing is that golf is in the Olympics again, and the most dynamic athlete in the world is behind the idea. In June, Votaw and his people went to an IOC meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, to make the case for golf. The committee members sat at long tables, some wearing headphones to listen in translation, and watched a five-minute video.
In the final minute, Woods finally appeared. No swooshes, no baseball hat. Just Tiger in a tan zippered sweater, talking about golf as a “global” and “honorable” game and the Olympics as “the grandest of stages.” The room went still.
And then the tape ended and the flat screens went black and applause filled the air.