Monday, May 2

Are Golf and the Olympics a Good Match?

Much has been written about marquee golfers dropping out of the Olympics, including at this blog last week. Irish golf writer and author Kevin Markham offers additional perspective on the controversial topic.

By Kevin Markham

Copyright © Kevin Markham. Used with permission.

Kevin Markham has played every
18-hole golf course in Ireland.
ON AUGUST 11, 2016, THE BATTLE for golf's Olympic gold medals will begin. The re-introduction of golf is widely seen as a blessing for the sport but not everyone agrees on its inclusion or its format. 

Is the Olympics good for golf?

Four billion people watched some part of the London Olympics. What an enormous audience for golf to reach, influence and inspire. As the biggest sporting spectacle on earth the Olympics is an unprecedented opportunity for golf to grow on a global scale and golfing bodies are falling over themselves to tell us about it.

Paul McGinley, who will lead the Irish golf team, says "It is the biggest sporting event in the world and to have a seat at the top table in sport is a big deal for golf."

That's very true, but the recent withdrawals of Adam Scott, Louis Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel and Vijah Singh signals that not all is as peachy as it seems.

Consider this: Of the billions who tuned in to the 2012 Olympics, how many people who watched the water polo were inspired to take up the sport?

A more relevant comparison is Tiger Woods' success in the 1990s and 2000s. Figures for African-American kids taking up golf show little improvement as a result of Tiger's phenomenal success. In other words, success and exposure do not equate to an uptake at the grassroots level.

Is golf good for the Olympics?

When golf was offered a place at the Olympics table, the International Olympics Committee (IOC) specified that competitors must be professional golfers. The IOC hopes and expects golf to reach a vast audience including underdeveloped parts of the world.

It clearly – and cynically – shows why the field will comprise many of the richest sports personalities on the planet, because golf's superstars mean more people will watch, which will mean more sponsors… and more money for the IOC. So yes, golf is good for the Olympics, but there is an elephant in the room.

Is a professional strokeplay event the right format?

Do we really need another 72-hole strokeplay tournament? This was a massive opportunity to make Olympic golf a riveting event. If you want non-golfers to watch a sport that takes five hours to complete, you need a matchplay format that makes every individual hole a battle, every putt a possible victory. There will also be a winner after each match… not after four days. That's what creates excitement. Just look at the Ryder Cup. 

"To grow the game of golf we need to invite amateurs to compete at the Olympics, instead of the current format of 60 (edited) top professionals," Adam Scott said last year.

For those who agree with Scott, consider who non-golfers want to watch: leading amateurs or McIlroy and Spieth? How many of us took up the game because we saw Seve, Jack or Tiger playing so many magical shots? If the Olympics is to be a showpiece for golf, then shouldn't those players who youngsters aspire to be, be the ones who play?

And finally, there's the issue of whether golf should even be in the Olympics when a gold medal is not the absolute pinnacle of a golfer's career?

Graeme McDowell has said that the Olympics is the pinnacle of sport. But is it the pinnacle of golf? A gold medal or a Green Jacket?  

The arguments regarding golf's inclusion, who should play and in what format will rage on, but for now golf and the Olympics are entwined. By the end of August that relationship might have tightened, or simply snapped. And given baseball's exclusion in 2016, we know how severe that snap can be.

Kevin Markham is the author of Hooked: An Amateur's Guide to the Golf Courses of Ireland and writes about Irish golf courses and other golf topics at his blog.

1 comment:

Oneunder said...

Olympic Golf has a shaky history and I'm not sure that RIO 2016 will be a stepping stone to its future success. Having been an Olympic game twice (1900 Paris, 1904 St. Louis )as a match play format it appeared a success though it had it's many problems and detractors. But the attempt in London Olympics of 1908 was a disaster, not so much a result of the switch to medal play, but because of which governing body would rule over the games. Golf may get a few extra million eye balls because of the scope of the event and coverage, but I'm not really sure the show they are going to see is going to holding power beyond the fans of Pro golf.