Golf will return to the Olympics in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, but if the field were filled today based on the International Golf Federation’s current proposed plan, the host nation would be shut out of the men’s competition.
It would also exclude more than half of the world’s top 50 players, more than two-thirds of the top 100 and up to 15 nations that were theoretically the targets of the whole growth initiative that golf’s Olympics bid was based upon.
That’s not exactly the recipe golf needs to avoid being, as one international columnist opined, “the dullest competition of the games” and avoid being dropped after 2020.
“We need to put on a good competition in ’16 or otherwise the potential exists that we could be out after ’20,” PGA Tour Vice President Ty Votaw said in 2009 after being one of the principal leaders in golf’s bid to secure a spot in the Olympics after more than a century’s absence.
Unfortunately, the proposed 60-player men’s and women’s competitions will have so little depth and such a limited scope that it figures to be practically dead on arrival unless the IGF can convince the International Olympics Committee to accept some tweaks to boost participation and intrigue.
As is, the fields would be smaller and significantly weaker than current limited-field WGC events and have no national-team component.
“At the end of the day you’re still playing for yourself in a way, the way the format is at the minute,” said Rory McIlroy, the No. 1 golfer in the world who won last week’s PGA Championship.
Even R&A chief executive Peter Dawson seems uninspired by the format he helped spearhead across the finish line three years ago.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to make the Olympic competition a little bit different, at least, from the week in, week out competition?” Dawson said after July’s British Open. “But thoughts of an element of match play, thoughts of an element of team competition have been raised with us many times, and it’s those areas we’ll be having a look at.”
But Dawson stressed the chances of changing in the next four years – even though the Olympic course in Brazil hasn’t started construction – are small.
“Golf’s bid was based on individual competition,” he said. “It was accepted on individual competition, 72‑hole stroke play. In order for that to be changed – and I’m not sure that it ought to be changed – but if it were to be, we’d have to get agreement from the IOC sports department.”
Through all the buildup leading to the IOC accepting golf’s bid in 2009, IGF officials argued inclusion in the Olympics would be the catalyst for governments to release funds to support golf development programs in countries where the game’s growth is embryonic.
Dawson spoke of “maximizing the number of countries that can earn a medal.”
To ensure quality representation, the original proposal called for the top 15 players in the world ranking to be included regardless of nationality. But the IOC has asked for a maximum of four players per nation. There are currently nine Americans in the top 15, meaning five would be excluded under the limits.
Exclusive national team limits are in keeping with other Olympics sports and should help open the door for other nation’s to be included.
Format is another matter.
It’s unlikely the world’s best players will be willing to squeeze in more than 72 holes to represent their countries in what will already be a Ryder Cup year for many of the representatives from Europe and the United States.
Tiger Woods, one of the key figures in sparking interest from the IOC, endorses the standard stroke-play format.
“One of the things that’s positive about a straight 72-hole format is that it provides the opportunity to have the most players on the back nine with an chance to win a medal,” Woods said.
There are simple ways, however, to tweak the current format that would create even more medal opportunities – including national teams – without forcing the players to play more than 72 holes.
Doubling the field size could include up to 50 percent more nations and 30 percent more of the world’s best players to spark the competition.
If the field were established based on the official world rankings after July’s British Open, the current IGF proposed format would only include 23 of the top 50 players, 32 of the top 100 and players from 31 nations.
None of the players would hail from Brazil, only six from South America and three from Africa.
If the Olympics invited 21 four-man national teams – with a minimum of two per continent plus an automatic team invitation to the host nation – and up to 36 more individual entries (maximum two per nation), a field capped at 120 would have world-ranked players from at least 46 nations. It would include as many as 30 of the top 50 and 45 of the top 100.
This alternative proposal would include 21 golfers from South America, including national teams from Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Chile. At least eight players from each continent would be guaranteed a spot in the Olympics.
The format would remain 72-hole stroke play, with a 36-hole cut that keeps each member of the top 10 teams (based on cumulative score of the top three scorers each day) plus any players among the top 50 scorers including ties. You would end up with somewhere between 50 and 70 players reaching the weekend.
After 72 holes, individual and team gold, silver and bronze medals would be awarded. The team medals would be based on the cumulative totals of the team’s top three scorers every day – similar to the way the NCAA Tournament used to operate.
In this alternative format, the top-ranked players still get to play for themselves and Olympic glory while also being part of a team that requires no extra effort.
The bonus is guys down the pecking order of the leaderboard will still have to play their guts out because the team score and medal hopes are counting on them.
That could be just enough to make the Olympics stand out a little bit from the already crowded golf schedule that features majors, WGCs and tour playoffs.
“We have seven big events right now in this stretch, and we’re adding an eighth,” said Woods. “It’s going to be a very, very busy summer for us as golfers. But it’s also the Olympics, and it is a very big event and something that we haven’t historically been involved in. It’s always a first to be involved in something to that magnitude, and if I make it, that would be great.”