Commentary

Olympic golf not all smooth sailing

Originally Published: October 9, 2009
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

SAN FRANCISCO -- They pulled out the driver and then fired at every pin. Even though golf had already been recommended for inclusion in the 2016 Olympic Games, the International Golf Federation was taking no chances.

It brought Padraig Harrington, Michelle Wie and Suzann Pettersen to Copenhagen for Friday's final pitch. It had video messages taped in San Francisco at the Presidents Cup from Tiger Woods and Ernie Els.

It wanted the International Olympic Committee to know that the game's stars are on board.

And so the goal was achieved, golf is back in the Olympics for the first time since 1904, and now there's all sorts of giddiness over how this will make a positive impact on the game.

There is no doubt that it will do so for the game around the world. Countries that pour big money into developing Olympic athletes will now do so for golfers. That can only help the game grow in places where it is not now popular.

But there are still some tricky par-5s to navigate, some hazards to avoid, some out-of-bounds stakes to take into consideration.

There are two big things in play here: the growth of the game, and the participation of golf's biggest stars. And they are very different.

"The real impact here is that governments in China and India will now spend significant funds on the development of golfers, just as they spend on the development of gymnasts and field hockey players," said John Strawn, president of the design firm Arthur Hills/Steve Forrest and Associates and former CEO of Robert Trent Jones II design.

"In China, for example, the creations of golf practice facilities alone -- not to mention golf courses -- will run into the billions of dollars. I don't have to tell you how beleaguered the course-development side of the golf industry is these days, in the U.S. especially, and the U.S. exports this expertise more than any country on Earth. This stands to be an enormous shot in the arm."

That sounds good for those in the golf business, but how quickly will that lead to world-class players from places that now do not have them? Over time, yes, having golf in the Olympics will serve to bolster such locales.

But in the short-term, Olympic golf -- unless the format is changed -- will consist of the same world-class players we see competing in the major championships and on the major tours such as the PGA Tour, European Tour and Japan Tour.

"I see the Olympics as the pinnacle of all the sports that are involved," said British Open champion Stewart Cink. "In many other sports, it's such a do-or-die situation in the Olympics, there's your chance it comes and goes so quickly, and the pressure is so intense. To perform under that kind of pressure has always been sort of the dream come true for any athlete."

Golf has that kind of pressure four times every year in the form of the major championships, and at least for now, it remains hard to fathom a player's coveting Olympic gold over major-championship hardware. You can bet that Cink's Claret Jug will mean more than a medal ever would.

That, of course, might be a shortsighted American view. Eventually, an aspiring golfer in India might see an Olympic medal as the greatest achievement in the game.

But it will be a long time before we get to that point.

Initially, there will be logistical and philosophical considerations. Seven years from now, Woods will be 40 and presumably still chasing major championships. The proposed dates for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics are Aug. 5-21, right about the time when the PGA Championship is played and during a hectic time in the golf schedule.

"We know there are going to be some scheduling challenges," PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said Friday at Harding Park Golf Course, site of the Presidents Cup. "And we knew that going in and we have all just agreed to fix it. So every four years we'll have to move the schedule around. … We just have to move some tournaments around and make it work."

And then there is the issue of format. What has been proposed is a simple 72-hole stroke-play event, with the Official World Ranking used to determine a 60-player field for both men and women. The top 15 in the world would automatically qualify, and after that, a maximum of two players per country.

Let's hope the powers that be rethink this. Most of the players queried on the subject prefer 72 holes of stroke play as the best way of determining an overall champion. Fair enough. But why not allow three players per country and institute some sort of medal-match play format that would allow for individual and team medals? That would be far more compelling. As is, Olympic golf would not be much different from a World Golf Championship event.

There is plenty of time to work out those details, of course.

For now, those in the game are excited about golf's inclusion.

"Having golf added to the 2016 Olympic Games is awesome news," said Canada's Mike Weir. "It will accelerate the growth of the game globally. It means a world-class athlete like Ryo Ishikawa, a teammate of mine this week at the Presidents Cup, can have the opportunity to win an Olympic medal for his country, something none of us in golf would have thought possible when we were growing up in the sport."

No doubt, Ryo will be in Rio in 2016.

And the Japanese star will be all of 25 years old.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

ALSO SEE