Olympics: Golf’s big shot

August 13, 2009, arguably could become the most significant date in golf history. For it may be the day that forever alters how the game grows around the world.

The International Olympic Committee’s executive committee meets that day in Berlin, and members will recommend two sports for possible addition to the 2016 Olympic Games. Seven sports – baseball, golf, karate, roller sports, rugby, softball and squash – are under consideration. The committee’s choices will go before the full IOC membership for a final vote in October in Copenhagen.

If golf is selected, it would make a return to the Summer Games after a 112-year absence. The sport was played in two Olympic Games, the most recent in St. Louis in 1904.

Canada’s George Lyon took center stage on the medal podium that year, and his victory was remarkable for a number of reasons. The Richmond, Ontario, native did not take up golf until he was 38. At age 40, he won his first of eight Canadian Amateur titles. He was 46 when he competed in St. Louis. Moreover, he was one of only three Canadians in the 77-man field. He bettered his two compatriots and 74 U.S. golfers, beating American Chandler Egan, 3 and 2, in the final to claim golf’s inaugural Olympic gold medal.

Back then, only the U.S. and Canada competed. But in 2016, the sport would draw competitors from a host of nations, renewing interest in the game in mature golf markets and engaging new fans and participants in emerging ones.

Some critics question the value of competing for Olympic gold in a sport already rich with marquee championships, including the four majors. There’s broad agreement among golf’s ruling bodies that Olympic participation would provide a windfall.

R&A chief executive Peter Dawson has been instrumental in pushing for golf’s inclusion. He reverts to popular vernacular to describe why golf should get Olympic status.

“It’s a no-brainer,” said Dawson, a member of the International Golf Federation’s Olympic Committee that spearheaded the Olympic bid. “It took me minutes to make my mind up on this: If we want to grow the game, then we have to be in the Olympics. It’s as simple as that.

“We’re not expecting numbers to grow drastically where golf is already played. The difference will be in the Far East, Asia, the former Soviet countries and other areas of the world where golf has never really found traction. We know from looking at other sports that once they get Olympic recognition, then government funding for such sports is raised significantly. Golf is already growing in nonendemic countries like China and India . . . , but that growth will be accelerated if it gets into the 2016 Games.”

Tenniel Chu, executive director of Mission Hills Golf Club in China, has helped fuel the sport’s growth in his country. The resort, touted as the largest golf facility in the world, with 12 courses, is host to the World Cup and offers instruction to accomplished players and beginners alike. He knows first-hand the advances that golf already has made in China – and what Olympic inclusion would mean.“There is a forecast by the Chinese Golf Association that by the year 2020, China will (have). . . an estimated 20 million golfers,” Chu said. “Right now, there is an average growth rate of 50 percent per year in China, so if golf does get in the Olympics I wouldn’t be surprised to see the growth rate going up to 60 or 70 percent.”

As far as Ty Votaw, executive director of the IGF’s Olympic Committee, is concerned, it doesn’t matter whether such estimates are exaggerated.

He simply points to the impact the Olympics has had on other sports in the world’s most populous nation.

“There are 300 million people now playing basketball in China,” Votaw said. “There wasn’t anywhere near that number before the (U.S.) Dream Team played in Barcelona (in 1992). I’ll take 10 percent of that. The estimated number of golfers in the world is around 60 million, so if we get another 30 million then we’ve grown the game by 50 percent. Even if it’s 1 percent, 3 million, then we’ve still grown the game.”

Likewise, Votaw credits the Olympics for fueling tennis’ growth in the former Soviet Union.

Tennis, an Olympic sport from 1888 to 1924, was reinstated to the Games in 1988. Today, five of the top 10 women in the world rankings are Russians.

“Look at how women’s tennis in Russia has grown since tennis became an Olympic sport,” Votaw said. “I don’t think there would be so many world-class Russian tennis players if tennis didn’t have Olympic status.”

Government support for Olympic sports goes far beyond identifying and grooming talent. In the case of golf, industry observers expect China’s government to subsidize golf-course construction. Such facilities may be intended for training future medalists, but eventually they’ll be opened to the masses.

“Every new golfer is a potential new customer for golf manufacturers or golf courses,” Votaw said. “What’s the downside?”

Good question. Finding someone to offer a contrarian view is difficult. Those against the sport’s inclusion harp about Olympic golf’s place in the hierarchy of major championships.

“One wonders why there is this seemingly never-ending quest to include golf in the Olympics,” wrote former Australian tour professional Mike Clayton in August 2008. “Presumably it would qualify the game for extra government funding but . . . an Olympic tournament could never approach the importance of the game’s grand slam championships.”

Indeed, no top player is on record as saying he or she would prefer to win Olympic gold over a major championship.

Spaniard Sergio Garcia’s view is typical: “I’d love to represent my country in the Olympic Games, but I wouldn’t give up the chance to win one of the four majors to win a golf medal.”

Dawson and Votaw understand Garcia’s position but insist the Olympics doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition. They’ve made it clear to the IOC that participating in the Summer Games won’t conflict with the majors, increasing the likelihood that the game’s biggest stars will be in the field.

On the men’s side, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, K.J. Choi, Ernie Els, Camilo Villegas and Garcia are among those on record as having said they want to play; among top women, Lorena Ochoa and Suzann Pettersen are interested.

But who’s to say in future generations that an Olympic gold won’t be more coveted than a green jacket or a Claret Jug?

“We recognize the four majors as the pinnacle of our sport, but that might not be the case for new golfing nations should golf become an Olympic sport,” Dawson said. “Golfers in other countries might think winning a gold medal at golf is far more important.”

Votaw is equally convinced that Olympic glory could one day supersede victory at the majors.

Said Votaw: “If Jack Nicklaus had won three Olympic gold medals, then you can bet Tiger Woods would have had that target on his chart on his bedroom wall when he was growing up.”

Welcome to Golfweek.com's comments section.
Please review the posting guidlines here: Golfweek.com Community Guidelines.
All accounts must be verified using Disqus email verification