3 Jul 2016

Golf's time at the Olympics could prove short-lived

From Insight, 8:10 am on 3 July 2016

Golf's re-inclusion at the Olympics has sparked controversy from a number of angles, but will it last long past Rio? Insight takes a look at its prospects, and what the outcome could mean for New Zealand.

Rio beach Olympics 2016.

Rugby sevens and golf have been added to the Olympic programme but only for 2016 and 2020. Photo: Supplied

It's been a long time since golf last featured at the Olympic Games - 112 years to be exact.

Against all odds, a 46-year-old former Canadian cricketer turned golfer named George Lyon beat the tournament favourite, American Henri Chandler Egan, to win golf's last Olympic gold medal.

Fast forward over 105 years and golf's powerhouses, the Royal and Ancient of St Andrews, the International Golf Federation and the US Golf Association, successfully lobbied for the sport to be re-included in the Olympic programme.

The three organisations are intent on making golf a global game through the Olympic regime, and now 60 of the world's best male and female golfers will tee it up in Rio.

However not everyone's on board: five of the top 15 men have already pulled out of the event.

A number of reasons have been used: the Zika virus, scheduling, the field and the format, but former New Zealand professional turned PGA Tour commentator Phil Tataurangi says the truth is a lot of the male professionals don't consider the Olympics a priority.

"No professional at the start of this season would have traded a gold medal at Rio for one of the four major championships, certainly in the men. I can't speak from the women's standpoint but I would hazard a guess that that would be the case as well.

"The major championships are those that you judge yourself by, those are the ones you are judged by when your career is done."

Golfer Rory McIlroy.

World number four Rory McIlroy pulled out over the Zika virus. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Close to 10 male golfers have pulled out, five of them in the last two weeks alone. Seven of them are major champions and four of them have been the world number one at some stage in their career.

With the field's quality diminishing day by day, golf's future at the Olympics already appears short lived.

The golf world number one Australian Jason Day.

Men's world number one Jason Day is the biggest loss from the Rio Olympic field. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

When golf and rugby sevens were added to the Olympic programme in 2009, they were included for just 2016 and 2020, following next month's games. If golf is seen as a failure in the eyes of the International Olympic Committee, it could be pulled from the programme after 2020.

IOC member Barry Maister says the lack of quality in the field concerns him.

Maister, an Olympic gold medallist for New Zealand, said any discipline that didn't have its top field competing needed to be scrutinised.

"If you want the best there and you end up with any sort of an allegation of a second-rate tournament, and I'm not suggesting we have that situation at all, but if it arose, I would be appalled - and I would be thinking that any sport that is in that position would have to question whether it should be on the programme.

"Given that we were given really clear assurances when golf came into the programme that all the top players would be leaping over themselves to compete in the Olympic Games, and now we are starting to get a little chink in the wall with saying, well, that some of these top players aren't going to be there. So yes, it concerns me."

If golf is cut from the programme after just two Olympics, it would seriously hurt New Zealand's chances at a medal.

Women's world number one and New Zealand professional Lydia Ko is considered as having a high chance of ltaking a medal, if not a high chance of taking the gold, but might only get two chances at earning one.

Lydia Ko of New Zealand at the LPGA tour event in South Korea. 2015.

New Zealand professional Lydia Ko might only have two chances to win an Olympic medal. Photo: Getty Images

Most administrators around the world have said they are optimistic golf will be a success, despite the lack of a quality men's field, and expect more professionals to get behind it following Rio.

The New Zealand Olympic Committee secretary general, Kerryn Smith, who's responsible for getting the athletes to the games, summed up the apprehensiveness around golf's re-inclusion best.

"I wonder if it takes some time for a sport that's added to the programme to really understand what the Olympics can do for them and that might take a couple of iterations.

"My recollection is that with tennis it took some time and now we see the best tennis players going and in fact they find it so different, so refreshing and just fabulous to compete for their country with other athletes it's a different proposition so I'm wondering if that's where golf gets to.

"Sometimes we think that one or two voices is everybody. It's not everybody, and I'm sure that the golf competition at the Olympics will be equally as keenly competed for as anything else."

So, for many, the answer over whether golf belongs in the Olympic programme seems to be "give it time" - but if this year's games are a failure, time may not be on golf's side.

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