Tour Confidential: Did This Week Prove Golf Belongs at the Olympics?

August 14, 2016

Every Sunday night, conducts an e-mail roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and Golf Magazine. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation in the comments section below.

1) The first Olympic golf competition in 112 years ended in dramatic fashion Sunday afternoon with Justin Rose edging Henrik Stenson on the back of a sensational pitch shot on the 72nd hole. The fourth round didn’t lack for excitement, but did golf prove that it belongs in the Olympic program?

Cameron Morfit, senior editor, GOLF Magazine: The jury is still out because we can’t take Rio, a total non-golf country, as our sample. Also the format was a mistake. Shouldn’t there have been a team component here? 

Jeff Ritter, senior editor, It can work. The pride and emotion all three medalists displayed afterward further cements it. The finish was so much fun, my only concern is that it will motivate the power brokers to leave the format as-is. Olympic golf is begging for a team element.

Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated : Without a doubt. After so much early apathy, it was heartening to see the players embrace the opportunity. They get it—the Olympics are a big deal.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Oh, hell yes. Three world-class players — Rose, Stenson and Kuchar — put on a heckuva show on Sunday on a track that has instantly established itself as one of the best tournament courses in the world. But the revelation was Sunday’s crowd. A theme throughout these Olympics has been the disappointing fan turnout, but all 15,000 tickets were sold for Sunday, an incredible achievement given Brazil’s lack of golf tradition and the course’s distance from the tourist center. And those who showed up were loud and fun. It was a big-time atmosphere.

Josh Sens, contributor, GOLF Magazine: Think back on some of the most riveting golf events of your lifetime. Did this competition rank anywhere near your top 10? Your top 20? Your top 50? No disrespect to the deserving champion (his genuinely impassioned reaction to his win was the highlight of the four days for me) or to any of those who competed, but the lack of electricity was palpable in the crowd. The Olympics is supposed to reside somewhere near the summit of a sport. This event never got much higher than base camp. 

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports IllustratedIt did, absolutely. It wasn’t golf for the sake of golf. It was golf as one sport among many, and that is what elevated the proceedings. That, and expectations were so low. The course — the stage — looked beautiful, and that helped immeasurably. As did the quality of the play, the announcing and the obvious enthusiasm of so many of the players.

Joe Passov, senior editor, GOLF Magazine: Yes, absolutely yes, Golf proved it belonged in the Olympic program. I’m with Michael, in that there was such a low bar set in light of everything that came before, that it was more than a pleasant surprise to see it emerge the way it did. The players who did show were hugely positive in their comments for the course and in their enthusiasm for the event. The international flavor was full-bodied, especially the leaderboard after two rounds. The sport’s stars didn’t act like private jet-flying prima donnas; instead, they embraced the Games, attending the other events, and in some cases moving into the spartan quarters of the Olympic Village. No controversies or bad judging, sportsmanship on full display — yes, golf belongs.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports IllustratedThere’s one thing the Olympics can’t mess up despite all the profiteering, hype and excessive nationalism – the competition. When athletes compete, it’s thrilling, no matter the outcome and no matter the format. If rhythmic gymnastics doesn’t have to prove it belongs, neither should golf.

2) Has the last week changed your opinion of golf in the Games?

Morfit: I liked the enthusiasm I saw from the guys who were there. It was fun to see Rickie hanging around with Michael Phelps, being followed on the course by Matthew McConaughey, and generally socializing at an Olympic level, as Bode Miller might say. I don’t know if any of that changed my opinion, though. It still looks more like a grow-the-game initiative than anything else.  

Ritter: My hope was that a spirited competition would drown out the noise and negativity leading into Rio, and I think that’s exactly what we got. The women’s competition should also be thrilling, and there’s no doubt the ladies will be 100% invested. Before the Games I thought golf could be a fit here. Now I’m convinced it works.

Godich: I’ve said all along that golf belonged in the Olympics, and I didn’t see anything this week to change that belief.

Shipnuck: Have you been on my Twitter feed in the last six months?

Sens: Not really.  I was skeptical from the start. The widespread apathy among many of the world’s best players made that skepticism seem justified. And though there were some nice moments during the event itself, I get the sense that most golf fans responded to the competition with feelings ranging from mild curiosity to indifference. 

Bamberger: I went in unsure, and even that’s a stretch. I came out a believer.

Passov: It did change my opinion. I was one of the early proponents of golf in the games, simply because I felt that if the Chinese and Indians and perhaps even South Americans could take the sport more seriously, we might see some all-around growth … Not just in overall play, or via junior participation, but room for equipment companies and course architects to make hay as well. Later, I backed off a bit, looking at the idea that golf really already had its own “Olympics” in the form of the four majors. So, OK, at this point, I’m not going to paint my face and my fingernails, but I will wave the flag and say that was really cool — and I’d like to see it again every four years. Judging from the anguished reactions of Sergio Garcia and other non-medalists, and the brilliance and subsequent emote-fest by Justin Rose, we’re all in agreement.

Van Sickle: Not at all. Golf has its Olympics, the four majors. But if it’s going to continue, a format change is in order.

3) One of the biggest criticisms of golf’s return to the Olympics was the “ho-hum” format: 72 holes of stroke play. Fans were treated to a thrilling finish in Rio, but would the event benefit from moving to a team format in Tokyo in 2020?

Morfit: I kept wanting to figure out which two-man tandem was doing the best. (Sweden would’ve tied the top two American finishers at -20.) Meanwhile Team USA got to send four golfers while everyone else got two? I’d definitely like to see some refinements for Tokyo 2020, and introducing a team element seems like a no-brainer.

Ritter: Team golf is the most exciting format there is, and it would absolutely elevate this competition. How about two-man teams, total cumulative score? Or one team per nation (max four players), with best two scores counting toward the final? You could also award individual medals in these scenarios, to maintain continuity and tradition. 

Godich: Why can’t we have both? Keep the individual race for gold, silver and bronze, but expand the field and add a three-man team competition. You want to see players grind? Watch how a player who’s sitting in 24th responds knowing his country’s in the hunt for a team medal. 

Shipnuck: A team format is problematic in that many smaller countries have one very good player but it’s a big falloff to the second-best, so you’re eliminating from medal contention all but a handful of traditional golf-playing nations. And any kind of match play risks having many if not most of the big names eliminated well before the end. But a team game would be fun and different — if that’s the way the IGF goes, so be it. 

Sens: Couldn’t hurt. Whatever the future holds for Olympic golf, it’s pretty clear that stroke play has to go. If you’d been cryogenically frozen during the run up to the Games and defrosted just in time to watch the competition, you would have had a tough time distinguishing the medal round from any number of international tournaments that you only care somewhat about. 

Bamberger: Absolutely, it should be a team competition. Something very simple. Maybe 35 two-man teams, every shot counts, one team per country. Yes, only 15 or so teams will be competitive. That doesn’t matter. Also, for 2020: play the PGA in February, at Pebble, in the AT&T week.

Passov: So many options, and probably none of them bad, but I don’t see why we can’t adopt the old World Cup format. Two-man teams, 72 holes of stroke play. Makes it much more dependent of having your teammate come through for your country, yet keeps the fairness of the stroke-play format. Give out team medals, like they do in other sports, such as swimming and gymnastics, and then award individual medals for the low three finishers. 

Van Sickle: No format guarantees a thrilling finish. You get to match play and somebody wins the final, 7 and 6, and that’s not thrilling. With only a 60-player field, a runaway in stroke play is a greater possibility. No team format is going to work unless golf is willing to give up its current Affirmative Action stance that Olympic golf is for growing the game. 20 five-player teams in a college format–keep four scores–to determine the top four teams, then go to match play. Sadly, it’ll never happen.

4) British Open champion Henrik Stenson is in the thick of the Player of the Year race. How much stock do you put in his silver medal when rating his performance this year?

Morfit: It’s funny — had he won gold I think it would have helped him a lot. But winning silver somehow doesn’t seem like it’ll make much difference. Unlike his play at Troon, he didn’t come up with the goods at the end. You can’t win ’em all.

Ritter: It maybe helps a little, but gold would’ve given Stense a true boost. As it stands now, I think he’s still a peg below Dustin Johnson. On to the FedEx Cup.

Godich: It was more splendid play from the Stense, but his body language said it all. He wasn’t going to be happy with anything less than gold. He’ll be playing that third shot into the 18th back in his mind for a long time.

Shipnuck: It was a huge missed opportunity — if he takes gold he’s my POY no matter what happens in the FedEx Cup. But like at Baltusrol, he came up short. The Open was a massive highlight, but it’s Stenson’s only win. Now Dustin has to be the favorite, though if JDay wins one or two more events it will be hard to deny his consistent excellence, even without a major championship victory.

Sens: Rio was a continuation of a stretch of sparkling play for Stenson, and props to him for that. But on course performance aside, he also earns points for showing up and supporting an event he easily could have skipped. There’s a lot to be said for a big time star who was trying to get behind something bigger than himself.

Bamberger: Very significant. He has my vote, if I had a vote.

Passov: Well, it wasn’t a ‘W’ and it wasn’t a very deep field, but the pressure was intense, and all credit for him playing so superbly, continuing his brilliant summer run. I’ll put some stock in it, but not the same as a close runner-up in a major, a la Phil at Royal Troon.

Van Sickle: Stenson’s run gets as many POY points as it gets FedEx and Ryder Cup points. Zip.

5) Matt Kuchar posted a course-record-tying 63 on Sunday to win bronze for the United States. Where do you rank Kuchar’s round among his career achievements?

Morfit: As he admitted afterward, there’s nothing like winning a Tour event, when you’ve beaten the best of the best. This is somewhere down the list; I’d put it after his seven Tour wins but above his $37 million in career earnings.

Ritter: Quick — without checking, can you name any of Kuchar’s seven tournament titles? That’s not to diminish his very successful career, but to emphasize just how big this was for him. He would never publicly downplay his Tour titles, but the emotion he showed after winning bronze hinted that, deep down, he might consider it his defining accomplishment.

Godich: Until Kooch wins a major, the bronze has to rank at the top. His expressions and the way he studied his medal on the podium were priceless. That’s saying something for a guy who seems to be perpetually happy. 

Shipnuck: It’s his biggest. Can any casual fan name even one of Kuchar’s Tour victories? But fighting his way onto the podium was a massive achievement.

Sens: A very cool showing, no doubt. But nothing close in magnitude to his win at the Players. 

Bamberger: His 63 is of a piece with where he did it. He’s a professional golfer, so all the money he’s made, and his win at the Players, is what defines his career. His bronze medal and the 63 that made it possible is only meaningful when considered with all that. It’s in another category. It stands alone. Having said that, this whole thing would have been just as good — and maybe better — with the best amateurs. But having said that, the women pros playing this week is a huge, huge opportunity for them.

Passov: He’s got a bunch of tour wins, represented his country in other events and has won the U.S. Amateur, but I’m thinking this remarkable 63 (but oh, what almost, coulda-been!) will earn him more positive adulation and fame than anything else he’s done. For that reason, I’ll place it near the top.

Van Sickle: Kooch has made a career out of finishing third. He’s so consistent, and that finally mattered here. This medal has to rank right behind his wins, but that’s for him to say.

6) What will be your enduring memory from the week?

Morfit: I will always remember how different this looked from a regular Tour event or a major, what with the goofy, multi-colored bleachers behind 18 green and the sometimes hideous team shirts. And I’ll remember the supposed experts like ourselves and the NBC announce team trying mightily to figure out what to make of it.

Ritter: Rose and Stenson dueling down the stretch on a bright day and an unfamiliar, but extremely cool, golf course. It felt like the future of Olympic golf may have been hanging in the balance Sunday afternoon. Also, I will never forget the Capybaras.

Godich: The way the players embraced the Games and the Olympic spirit: Justin Rose participating in the Opening Ceremony, his mother watching proudly from the stands; Rickie Fowler, golf’s ultimate ambassador; Bubba Watson, bouncing from event to event. I hope Rory was watching.

Shipnuck: Wow, there are so many. It was a really different, rather magical experience for us here in Rio. Did you see Brazil’s Aldison da Silva finish his round today, draped in his flag, tears streaming down his face? The ovation from the home fans was one of the loudest noises I’ve ever heard on a golf course. 

Bamberger: Rose pumping his chest when it was over. 

Sens: Justin Rose’s exultant reaction when his final put dropped, fist pumping his own chest and gesturing to the crowd, sharing his win for his country with them. Rose said all along that the Olympics meant a great deal to him. And then he went ahead and proved that those weren’t empty words. Too bad more of the world’s best players didn’t feel the same. 

Passov: OK, as a golf course geek, giant golf claps for Gil Hanse’s design that favored no one type of player or game, yielded tons of birdies and low scores, yet provided enough challenge, variety and thought-provoking decision-making that it should serve as a template for future designs and redesigns. Mostly though, it was so great just to watch it all unfold, with little reference to the guys who skipped it, or to other issues affecting the Olympics. Just to see Bubba and Rickie and Kooch smiling and tweeting, attending the other events, reacting like little kids on Christmas morning — truly awesome to see actual joy on display. 

Van Sickle: I won’t soon forget the across-the-sky lightning bolt I saw Saturday before heading to the parking lot after the third round of the U.S. Senior Open in Columbus. It wasn’t all that close but hey, lightning doesn’t have to be all that close. In other words, I didn’t get to watch much Olympic golf. Maybe this week!