How to make Olympic golf must-watch TV for *all* sports fans
Now that most players and pundits appear to agree that golf indeed belongs in the Olympics, the conversation has turned to a question of refinement: How might Olympic golf be improved?
Match play? Team play? Synchronized mix-gender stroke play?
Sure. Okay. Maybe.
But here’s a better option, one that captures the spirit of the game but also the spirit of the Games, so much so that its essence is enshrined in the Olympic motto.
Faster. Higher. Stronger.
Olympic speedgolf, anyone?
Scoff if you must. But consider speedgolf’s bona fides before you block it from the podium.
Though its origins are tough to pinpoint, the sport first made mainstream headlines in 1979 when the great American miler (and two-time Olympian) Steve Scott whipped through 18 holes in 29 minutes and 33 seconds, shooting 95 with nothing but a 3-iron. Impressive showing! But not gold-medal worthy in the realm of speedgolf, where score is calculated as a combination of how fast you get around and how many strokes you take.
More Herculean exploits were soon to come. In the decades that followed, other Olympic runners warmed to speedgolf, as did a growing number of accomplished golfers. It wasn’t long before the sport gave rise to such absurd achievements as the one notched by Christopher Smith, a PGA-certified instructor from Oregon, who, in 2005, took all of 44 minutes and 6 seconds to card a 65 on a championship course. Smith’s Beamon-esque world record still stands, but other speedgolfers have emerged who perform in the same orbit. The best in the sport put up stunning numbers in a spectacle we rarely get to see.
That scarcity is an Olympic selling point.
As compelling as it has been for a lot of us hardcore golf fans on No Doz to catch the wee-hours action live from Kasumigaseki Country Club, surely few casual Olympics-watchers have been doing the same. Or even seeking out the golf on tape delay. To them, the format looks like golf as usual. It lacks appeal.
Not that I buy the notion, sold hard for so long, that Olympic golf should be obliged to “grow the game.”
But it should, at very least, stir a modicum of interest among non-golfers, in the same way that, say, the sight of slender track-and-fielders jumping over hurdles into puddles prompts a double-take from some of us who would never dream of taking up the steeplechase.
Put another way, a basic requirement for an Olympic sport should be that it makes the average channel-surfer pause.
Fast, fun and far from the same-old, it’s a quick, addictive follow: sporting entertainment for TikTok attention spans.
By most meaningful measures, speedgolf abides by the Rules of Golf. You play it as it lies, counting every stroke while carrying a maximum of 14 clubs (though most speedgolfers opt for anywhere from four to seven, roughly the same number as many Tour pros in this age of bomb-and-gouge).
Far from being loosey-goosey with industry standards, speedgolf has been something of an industry leader. From its inception, its rules have allowed for lateral drops off O.B. shots and for leaving the flagstick in on putts — two time and sanity-saving changes that golf’s governing bodies recently embraced, having recognized, among other things, that the greatest threat to the health of the game is not the prospect of it unfolding faster but the grinding pace at which it’s often played.
Speedgolf comes with a built-in shot-clock, a precious tool that many tournaments are too timid to employ. Consider it a cure for golf’s worst scourge.
What’s that you say? You insist that any golf in the Olympics showcase the talents of the world’s best. Speedgolf would not exclude them. It might even attract them. Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka are just two of many top pros who prefer to go about their business briskly. Dustin Johnson is a see-it-hit-it kinda guy. So, for that matter, is this year’s Slovakian silver medalist in golf, a man so allergic to glacial play that he once left behind Ben Crane mid-round, plowing forward and finishing the hole that they were on while Crane stood frozen in the fairway.
Let’s set Rory Sabbatini free to play 18 as fast as he can.
You aren’t wrong to note that Sabbatini hardly appears built for speedgolf speed. Then again, the same is true of Lee Trevino. With that in mind, I point you to this video clip of the Hall of Famer, recounting how he prepared for a (successful) defense of his British Open title at Muirfield, in 1972. Did his regime consist of yoga? Band work? Consultations with a short-game guru? Nope, Trevino got himself ready by playing 36 holes a day for eight days in a row, running between every shot.
That’s right. One of golf’s all-time greats was big on speedgolf half a century ago. He just wasn’t calling it that.
Tour pros from that era will tell you that the game was played more quickly then. In that sense, Olympic speedgolf would be an advent that returns golf to its roots. Other aspects would be retro, too. Encouraged to keep things light by carrying fewer sticks, Olympic speedgolfers would be called upon to get creative, shaping shots, a la Seve Ballesteros in the one-club classic, a vanishing demand in the modern game. Don’t pretend that you would not be entertained.
On top of that, because speedgolf tournaments at the highest level are usually two-round affairs, the events could be wrapped up in a compressed timeframe, unlike the current four-round stroke-play competitions the Games now offer, marathon sessions that last some five-times longer than the marathon itself.
In that shorter period, given the breeziness of speedgolf, every permutation already put forth by would-be Olympic-golf reformers could be accommodated (well, synchronized mix-gender stroke-play would be tricky, but even that could be done), while allowing the competitors to move on sooner to paying gigs elsewhere around the globe.
Of course, it is also easier said than done, as getting a sport admitted into the Games requires a rubber stamp from the Olympic poohbahs. But if 3-on-3 basketball and speed climbing pulled it off, why can’t golf?
Nor would it be difficult for guys like Rory, Xander, Bryson and Collin Morikawa, or women like Nelly Korda, Lexi Thompson and Lydia Ko, to get themselves into cardio condition for what amounts to a five-mile run. Though speedgolf is a hybrid sport, it prioritizes shot-making over the ability to sprint.
A healthy number of the world’s best players have already poured their hearts into Olympic golf.
It would benefit the game — and the Games — to get those tickers pumping harder still.