Golf’s return to the Olympic Games after a lengthy exile was supposed to be a global celebration on one of sport’s grandest stages. Instead, the run-up to the Games has brought to mind one of Dan Jenkins’s pet phrases: point-missers. The sport that brought you national controversies about racial discrimination in the 1990s (Shoal Creek) and sexism in the 2000s (Augusta National’s membership practices) has now made its myopia international news, as player after player has announced he won’t show up in Rio. So much for love of country.
Excuses range from the busy summer schedule — don’t NFL players strap it on 16 weeks out of 17? — to Zika concerns, which is funny, because nearly 11,000 other Olympians haven’t been scared off by a pesky mosquito. Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player used the word “sad” to describe the selfishness of top players — the likes of Schwartzel, Scott and Oosthuizen — who’ve said they won’t be going to Rio.
As a leisure sport, golf has been in decline — and may face a true crisis when Boomers stop playing en masse. To support a healthy equipment industry and sustain thousands of courses, the sport needs new markets. Big countries interested in medal counts (India, China) are finding that golf is fertile ground and have boosted their commitment to national teams, helping to create the next generation of players. If, say, Hao Tong Li snags a medal, it will spur great interest in the sport.
Small countries with traditionally dim Summer Olympic prospects can also find glory through golf. Fiji has been competing in the Games since 1956 but has never won a medal. Vijay Singh, who has chosen to bow out, could have changed that. New Zealand (Danny Lee and Lydia Ko), Thailand (Kiradech Aphibarnrat), Norway (Suzann Pettersen) and Taiwan (Teresa Lu) don’t harvest much gold, silver or bronze in the Summer Games, either. Now they, too, have hope.
Whoever stands atop the podium in August will understand how big a deal it is. In most parts of the world, the average citizen has never heard of the PGA Championship, but a gold medal is universally understood. And in golf it will be even more special because of its rarity.
A popular canard often trotted out by Olympic golf detractors is that the Games are supposed to represent the “pinnacle of the sport,” and that will never be the case, given the long history of golf’s major championships. But soccer, tennis and basketball fans don’t consider the Olympics to be the pinnacle of their sports, and yet all have been enriched by competing there. Andy Murray’s gold medal at the 2012 London Games was as big a deal as any Wimbledon final. Roger Federer carrying the Swiss flag in the 2008 opening ceremonies was more indelible than anything he’s ever done at the Australian Open.
Despite the negativity, golf will get its own galvanizing star turn at the Olympics. And after a wait of more than a century, these Games can’t come soon enough.