The Olympics golf format is all wrong, but there’s an easy solution
Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
I have dreams when it comes to golf in the Olympics. Match play. Team play. Alternate shot. Genuine fun.
But I’ll settle for a simple, easy improvement.
The best thing you could say about golf’s current Olympic format is that it’s fine. It’s inoffensive. They didn’t dumb down the sport. It’s 72 holes of stroke play, just like it is every week. But in my mind the competition leaves us with three big shortcomings:
1. It’s unimaginative.
There is a 72-hole stroke play golf tournament on the PGA Tour nearly every week of the entire year, every year. This is the Olympics! Shouldn’t we find a way to spruce things up?
2. After medals, there’s nothing on the line.
Because there’s no purse and no FedEx Cup points on the line, the golfers outside of medal contention just sort of keep playing on the weekend, scrimmaging for a smattering of World Ranking points. There are a few golfers who would relish in a top 20 finish this weekend, but they’re the exception rather than the rule.
3. There’s no team component.
Again: This is the Olympics! Most competitors are there representing their country. Most golfers are there to be part of a larger athletic experience. And anytime golf has team competitions — think NCAAs, Ryder Cup, Solheim Cup, Presidents Cup — we always come away saying, “Damn, that was fun. We should do that more.” Other individual sports like swimming or track feature relay races at the Olympics. Tennis players team up for national doubles teams. Shouldn’t golf do something to keep up with that fun?
But I don’t want to pitch this idea from La La Land, so it’s important that I acknowledge two fundamental realities I don’t think we’re getting around:
1. We need an individual stroke-play competition.
Stroke play is the currency of the golf world, and if we’re giving out individual gold medals (which we need to do to attract high-powered individual athletes) they’ll want to decide that gold via stroke play.
2. We’re only getting athletes for one week.
The time of top Tour pros is just too valuable to expect they’d sacrifice multiple weeks for the Olympics when they could be spending precious time at home, gearing up for other events or doing basically anything besides playing golf for free.
Within those parameters lies a simple solution. The Olympics is now a one-week extravaganza. The limited fields of men’s and women’s competitors — 60 each — is now an asset. The men and women play in parallel; they go in two small waves, with women teeing off the front nine and the men off the back nine, switching each day.
The individual competition remains the same. Three medals are awarded on each side as each the men and women play 72 holes of stroke play. But there’s an additional team competition, and it’s modeled after the college game: Four scores (two men, two women) but you take the three best at day’s end to produce the team total.
This model addresses all three issues raised above. While it’s not exactly reinventing the wheel, it’s imaginative in that it’s unlike anything else we see every four years. For a sport that talks about growing the women’s game, there’s something powerful in packaging the two competitions together, and because of field size it’s a rare tournament week that would allow it to happen.
It would make for a more engaging, entertaining product, both for the players and for viewers at home. Sure, Paul Casey might not care about his final round if he’s T37 — but what if he’s trying to sneak Great Britain across the line for a bronze medal? Suddenly his final-round putts carry far more weight. And jamming the men’s and women’s competitions into one week would make the end result twice as action-packed. You can imagine some Red Zone-style split-screens down the stretch as the team medals hang in the balance.
Finally, it would satisfy our urge to make the Olympics into a team competition without sacrificing the sanctity of the individual titles. To give you an idea how those teams would look, this year’s competition would put Justin Thomas and Collin Morikawa on the same team as Nelly Korda and Danielle Kang. (Team USA‘s B squad would be plenty intimidating, too: Xander Schauffele and Patrick Reed would pair with Lexi Thompson and Jessica Korda.) How about Jin Young Ko and Inbee Park carrying Si Woo Kim and Sungjae Im to the medal stand? How about Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry with Leona Maguire and Stephanie Meadow? I love the idea of Lowry finishing up his round and then trotting over to one of Maguire’s finishing holes to cheer her on.
Team Mexico would be easy to get on board. Gaby Lopez arrived more than a week early to carry the flag in the Opening Ceremony. She’d team up with fan favorite Maria Fassi and join forces with Abraham Ancer and Carlos Ortiz.
“I think they could definitely do something like more where teams were involved even if we were playing individual and team,” Ortiz said pre-tournament. “I think being the Olympics is something special and they should definitely do something special. I think the format can definitely be better and I think that would engage the country to be more involved and make it more about the country, not individual.”
“Yeah, I completely agree with that,” Ancer added. “It would be so much cooler, I feel like.”
That’s two allies for the cause. Come on, comrades! Join the movement!
Sure, there are a few details still to work out. On Sunday, you might want to stagger the men’s and women’s tee times so that two gold medalists aren’t crowned at the same time. The qualifying process would have to prioritize full teams of four, because even a three-player team would be at a massive disadvantage without being able to drop a score. You’d need to make sure the men’s and women’s tees were set up so that they’d shoot similar scores each day. But these problems are all easily solved. The upside is obvious. The downside is, as far as I can tell, nonexistent. Down the line we can talk about alternate-shot match play competitions and other terrific possibilities. For now, can we just make this version a little bit better?
Besides, the TV’s on right now and I’m about to watch my 473rd swimming heat of this year’s games. Caeleb Dressel and Katie Ledecky could leave with five medals each. It seems only fair that the golfers get a chance to play on a team for once, too.