After a 112-year absence, golf returns to the Olympics in Rio in 2016. The push for golf to be returned as an Olympic sport has been a longtime goal of the golf establishment, but the success and effect on the game is a point of debate among many experts and the golf media. There are also many open questions about the format, course, and the competitors.
Several factors contributed to the acceptance of golf back into the Games, the most important being golf’s increasing international appeal and popularity. There is no question that this is also another after-effect of Tiger Woods’ dominance, popularity, and international appeal. The recent push for golf back into the Games started during the height of Woods’ perch as the king of golf.
There is no question that golf is also more accepted as a sport. Golf has also been embraced by minorities more than ever. The players look and appear to the public to be more athletic, mostly again thanks to Woods, who looks and trains like an NFL wide receiver. One could argue that golf is much more of an athletic test than table tennis, for example. For many decades, golf was not considered a sport. It was considered by the public and the sports world as a game for overweight smokers who drank too much. Many tour players during the post-World War II era did nothing but enhance this image. Who can forget the videos of Hogan, Nicklaus, and Palmer smoking on TV while playing?
The Olympics’ huge success as a TV event and its immense popularity among the general public should do nothing but help the game. A lot of the impact will be decided by two things: How much coverage NBC devotes to golf and who participates. Of courses the anticipated ratings compared to other traditional Olympics events will be tough for NBC to judge. It would a big gamble to put golf on in prime time. More than likely it will have a devoted channel like basketball had for the London Games. As evidenced by the poor ratings for the Nationwide and LPGA Tours would suggest, unless the best male players in the world participate, the number of viewers might be small.
Judging by the competition to be the architect of the yet-to-be-built golf course, one would think that there will be great interest among golf’s elite to participate. Gil Hanse beat out a who’s who list of modern-day architects, including Jack Nicklaus. Hanse is an American architect from Pennsylvania.
The exact format to pick the players has also not been determined. The Olympics have been moving to professionals in all sports for many years, so it is a good bet that we will see the usual faces. If the recent comments of the game’s top players are any indication, there will be strong competition among the top 100 players worldwide to represent their country.
Some purists are calling for the International Olympic Committee to require countries to send pure amateurs. While the idea is admirable, it would greatly lessen the interest and the ratings success. The excitement generated, the TV ratings, and the smoothness of the operation will determine if golf will be extended into future Games. From strictly a big-splash standpoint, I think golf would be wise to include the world’s best players for at least the Rio Games. We need to hear the media and the public in general talking about golf when the Games are happening. The competition for attention is overwhelming. Gymnastics, swimming, track, and beach volleyball rule the modern Olympics. For golf to get some attention, we need the best players participating.
Hopefully, we will get more details for the format and the plan to pick players in 2013. While the format and players are up in the air, and the golf course not having been built yet being a big question mark, personally I think the importance of having golf return to the Olympics is not debatable. It can do nothing but help propel the game to even greater heights from an international standpoint.
An Olympic golf hero winning a medal may create new interest among his country’s youth. It should also continue to further the perception of golf as a real athletic sport. If international minority players do well, it can also create more interest for golf in third-world countries and further erode golf’s image as a rich white man’s game. All of that can be nothing but good for the game.