Should golf stay in the Olympics?

The Rio Olympics are over. All of the medals have been awarded, the competitors have gone home and TV’s around the world are returning to their regularly scheduled programming.

How can you top the accomplishments of Michael Phelps still dominating in his fourth Olympics or Usain Bolt completing the triple-triple or newcomers like Penny Oleksiak and Andre DeGrasse raising the bar for Canada? The Olympic Games have no parallel. They bring the world’s best together every four years and despite all the politics, the shady side deals and patronage and payoffs, the scandals and doping charges, the bad economics and catastrophic social issues, the Games always seem to rise above it all and celebrate the athletes in a way that for a couple of weeks anyway, nothing else seems quite as important.

In the context of all that, we in the golf world have to ask, was golf a success in Rio? Did it do enough to justify being an Olympic sport past 2020 in Tokyo? Or was it a failed experiment?

Let’s face it – golf got off to a pretty rocky start with a questionable format and then so many top male players refusing to represent their respective countries. They made their reasons sound pretty convincing but without the stars, things looked pretty dire for the first Olympic golf competition in 112 years.

But then a funny thing happened. Like all the other political, economic and social problems that taint any upcoming Olympic Games, they all seem to disappear during the Opening Ceremonies. At the first sight of the athletes entering the Olympic stadium, marching proudly and excitedly behind their country’s flag-bearer, all that other stuff is forgotten. The Olympics are about the athletes.

Nobody embraced the Olympic experience better than Rickie Fowler. He was really into it and he wasted no time telling all his buddies that stayed home how much fun he was having with his new best friend Michael Phelps. Maybe Rickie was having too much fun because he didn’t play all that well – but he became golf’s unofficial ambassador and liaison to the other athletes.

The golf tournament could have been a real dud. Four rounds of medal play were about as uninspiring as heat rash and with no team competition, it looked like any other week on the pro tours, albeit with a pretty weak field.

Sure that’s what we watch every week and probably the organizers at the International Golf Federation thought it better to deliver a product that fans could grasp easily. But the Olympics are all about winning and losing. We’re used to seeing competitors eliminated from competition all the time. Part of the excitement is to watch the heats to see who goes on and who goes home. A match play format would have been sweet.

In the end, the men’s competition was lucky it got what boiled down to a head-to-head match between two of the world’s best players: Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson. And it went to the 72nd hole too with a thrilling finish.

It’s hard to describe the elation that Rose displayed when he won the gold medal. One of the knocks against golf being in the Olympics was that golfers won’t embrace it the same way other athletes do. Golfers have their four majors – that’s what determines successful careers. They also have huge amounts of money on the line every time they play. Could they get excited about a medal with no purse attached, no career defining legacy?

Rose did. So did Henrik Stenson. But Matt Kuchar was more excited to win bronze than the two players who finished ahead of him. And nobody was talking about the players who stayed home.

The women’s competition was much less controversial as almost all of the top players who were eligible went to Rio. After the men’s competition had provided a fitting finale, the women got right into it. Canada’s Brooke Henderson started slowly but a 64 on Day 2 got her close to the lead and gave fans across the country hopes for a medal.

Meanwhile Hall of Famer Inbee Park was fashioning a comfortable lead while World No 1 Lydia Ko was moving up the leaderboard alongside China’s Shenshen Feng and American Gerina Pillar.

Henderson went into self-destruct mode on the back nine during the third round. We’ve all done it – just not in the same kind of spotlight that the 18-year old found herself. It was one of the few times in her short career that she seemed to lose her composure. Her 75 left her well back of the leaders, frustrated and angry.

On the final day, Park widened her lead while Ko and Feng battled it out for silver and bronze. Ko prevailed but they made it exciting.

Henderson found her game again and a 67 moved her into a tie for 7th – not the medal she wanted but a very respectable showing nonetheless.

Nobody thought that professional golfers could get so excited about the Olympics. Money and majors are their driving forces. But in the end, it wasn’t about money or majors or even medals – it was all about athletes competing against each other to determine who’s the best in the world but coming together too – a unique environment where they’re all part of an international community.

So, was golf at the Olympics a success? Absolutely! In spite of the poor choice of format and the golfers that stayed home, what made it a success was the way the players embraced it. It might have been predictable based on the way they get up for team events like the Ryder Cup or Solheim Cup but nobody was thinking that way prior to Rio.

Tokyo will be different. The anticipation level will be greater, the fields will be stronger; the players will have a better understanding of what it all means. They want it. They want golf in the Olympics.

Peter Mumford
Peter Mumford is the Editor of Fairways Magazine. He's played over 500 different courses in 21 countries and met some fascinating people along the way. He's also a long-suffering Toronto Maple Leafs fan.

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