Golf should be an Olympic event
Call it the Mary Lou Retton bounce.
No, it's not a gymnastics routine Bela Karolyi teaches, but a phenomenon from which golf could learn. When NBC televised Carly Patterson's gold-medal effort for the United States in the women's all-around gymnastics competition at the Athens Games, nearly 32 million Americans tuned in to watch on delayed tape. Similar exposure in 1984 when Retton was the last American to win the all-around gold helped create the generation of American gymnasts we are now watching. That is just one reason why it is essential to the growth of golf that the game be included in the Summer Olympics.
The earliest this could happen is 2012 when the Games will be held in either London, Madrid, Moscow, New York or Paris. Next year the International Olympic Committee will consider the competitive agenda for 2012. The inclusion of golf would not only help grow the game in the U.S. but would have an even greater impact abroad.
"In Australia, the sports heroes are those who have achieved success in the Olympics," Warren Sevil, general manager of the Australian LPGA, said in May at the World Congress of Women's Golf. "With golf in the Olympics, it will increase funding and visibility from national sports councils in building the game."
After Retton won the gold in 1984, gymnastics emerged as a mainstream sport in the United States. A generation of children were exposed to the sport through after-school programs and other forms of childhood play. Patterson, in fact, had her first exposure to gymnastics when she was 6 and her cousin had a birthday party at a local gym. That was 10 years after Retton's gold, and it was a party that would likely not have happened 10 years earlier.
The biggest obstacle facing golf is that the IOC has changed the focus of the Games from amateurs to professionals; it believes this generates better TV ratings. Some in the IOC want to kick out baseball because the major leagues won't allow its players to participate (the Games take place during baseball season). The irony is that the event that gets the best TV ratings -- gymnastics -- has nothing but amateurs.
When golf goes before the IOC one of the first questions will be, "Can you guarantee us Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson?" The answer will be no. But Serena Williams had to sit out this year's Games and tennis did not suffer.
There is still hope. One proposed format for Olympic golf is a 72-hole stroke-play event in which three players represent each country. Just as in the 100-meter dash, the medals would be awarded for individual performance and not to a team. The LPGA and the PGA Tour -- and other tours -- still could have events that week. And it would be wise for both tours to grant a conflicting-event release to any member who wants to play in the Olympics.
Golf clearly is a world game. In the U.S. Open this year, 23 nations were represented; in the U.S. Women's Open, it was 25. With golf as an Olympic sport, junior programs worldwide will have an easier time attracting government, corporate and private money. The payoff for those contributors will come every four years on a world stage. The payoff for the industry will be more golfers buying more equipment. The payoff for the fans will be more talent to watch.
The time to act is now. We should all support the initiative. All of golf's governing bodies, as well as its pro tours, need to present a united front next summer and push for golf in the Olympic Games.
It is a golden opportunity that shouldn't be passed up.
Ron Sirak is the Executive Editor of Golf World magazine