Olympic Golf Needs Adjustment

New Format Might Help

For months, we followed the building of the Olympic golf course in Rio, wondering whether it would be finished in time through all manner of controversy. At that time, most of us didn’t really see the other problems coming. Political upheaval, a spreading virus, security concerns and high street crime have conspired to put a damper on the Games, one from which it may recover, but not fully or in time to keep the gleam on this version.

Golf waited a very long time for its invitation to return to the Olympic Games, and now that it has finally received it, a return invitation may be slipping out of the game’s grasp. On the men’s side alone, many of the highest-ranked or, at least, iconic names from around the world have bowed out.  What might have been left unsaid pertains to the political and security situations, but the public reasons seem to be honing in on the Zika virus.

rioToday, Jason Day, the most recent world number one, put family first, whatever the true level of risk, and excused himself from the Olympic quest. From there, the name of “so sorry” RSVPs goes to Rory McIllroy, Shane Lowrey, and Graeme McDowell. That, in one fell swoop, all but eliminates Ireland as a headliner team, at least for me, because I’m not sure that I would recognize any more of that country’s names. Vijay Singh has made his exit, and even though he is not generally a top contender anymore, he is a former Masters champion, and known to the golf world. Australia probably has a lot of excellent back-up players to fill its loss column, but Marc Lehmann and Adam Scott were by far the best bets for the country to take a gold medal home.

The United States is doing its normal macho thing, keeping its team and its hunger for gold intact. Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson, and Rickie Fowler are looking like a particularly strong team, and there may be too much internal pressure to break up the gang. It makes for good competition, but sometimes, one might wish that they would take a slightly more philosophical approach to the whole world arrangement.

That entire question can be put in the forefront with Tiger Wood’s suggestion that Olympic competition deserves the world’s best players, and nothing else. A general critic of the format, which features four players per country in the top 15, and two players per non-top 15 country, Woods suggests that the resulting quality level is not as high as a pro might experience on the PGA Tour, on a week-to-week basis. Perhaps he is right about that. However, Woods, like others, has forgotten that over the long haul, the Olympic Games are centrally about international relationships between countries. The events have historically been cast as an alternative to war, and are still considered as an important part of the peace process. To put the top 15 or 20 golfers in, regardless of country, moves the emphasis to the individual, not the team or global participation concept. It’s nice to win a gold medal, I’m sure, but especially in today’s scenario, the world needs it a lot more than one super-competitive golfer does. It’s not as if he or she wouldn’t be appropriately celebrated, after all.

Still, an Olympic field where many of the top draws are not present is a disappointment. Even though a star basketball player here and there won’t attend, basketball is a constant Olympic feature. Golf’s tenure is more precarious. We can’t supercede a player’s concerns for his family, and it is debatable whether the decision to attend should be more team-based. In the future, there will be Olympic Games that are safer in terms of crime, without the threat of a dangerous virus, and hopefully amidst less political upheaval. I only hope that when the dust settles in Rio, golf will still be part of the Olympic picture.

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