March 7th, 2012
09:47 PM ET

Why golf must get it right for 2016 Olympics

An illustrative version of the proposed Olympic golf course in the Rio suburbs.
An illustrative version of the proposed Olympic golf course in the Rio suburbs.

Not Jack Nicklaus, not Annika Sorenstam, not Greg Norman, Lorena Ochoa nor Gary Player. Instead, it’s the American architect Gil Hanse who takes the honor of designing a course fit to host golf’s return to the Olympics in Rio in 2016. It would be fair to say it’s a surprise.

It’s not that Hanse isn’t good. In fact he’s very good indeed. His design for Castle Stuart, now host to the Scottish Open, won "Best New International Course" in 2009, and his portfolio includes the Boston Golf Club, Craighead at Crail and courses in South Korea and Japan. Donald Trump has just entrusted him with refreshing the Blue Monster at Doral.

Golf will be back in the Olympics after a gap of 112 years. It didn’t take quite that long for Rio and the International Golf Federation to choose a designer – it just seemed that way. A series of delays led to rumors that the selection committee had been split.

To be fair, the temptation to go with a golfing great must have been enormous. Having Jack and Annika, Greg or Gary throw their reputations and influence behind the project would have made selling the concept much, much easier. But many within and around the small world of golf course architecture have already welcomed the decision to put the specific project design above strength of brand.

Because, despite the doubts of some commentators from established golfing nations, Rio 2016 really matters to the game.

As soon as the IOC put golf back into the Olympics, countries all round the world started getting squads together, charging coaches with developing their talented players to push them further up the Official World Rankings, the basis of Olympic qualification.

National governing bodies for golf could suddenly start prising funding out of sports councils and governments. In such countries as China, Olympic status has meant golf can now be seen to be supported.

Clearly it’s important that Rio is left with a first-class, environmentally-sustainable golf course, suitable for all levels of player. But it’s even more vital that the course is able to help produce an exciting tournament fit for the occasion, one that inspires and showcases talent. Hanse’s track record suggests the Rio Organizing Committee and the IGF have made a good pick, although until the course takes shape, under huge time-pressure, no-one can be really sure.

And obviously it’s not all down to the course. Golf’s standing in the Olympics will also rest in part on having a fair spread of competing countries, on the stage being thrown open to those beyond the traditional powerhouses.

It’ll also depend on the format, and there I fear the wrong decision may already have been taken. Week in, week out, Tour professionals play four rounds of strokeplay. It’s the fairest test of great players. However the most reliably-exciting tournament in the world is the Ryder Cup, based on matchplay, head-to-head drama that can grip even the most casual of observer. As things stand the Olympic tournament will be strokeplay.

Golf’s long-term presence in the Olympics is by no means secure. Rio and the IGF now have to keep on board some of those great names whose designs they rejected today, employing their international recognition to help sell Olympic golf.

They have to encourage golf federations and governments everywhere to develop the golfing stars of 2016. And they should at least look again at what sort of tournament can take golf beyond its core audience … and seriously reconsider that format.

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Filed under:  Golf
soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. Chad Smith

    Let's hope golf is immediately kicked out of the Olympics. It should never be there. As someone nicely pointed out, "What sort of Olympic sport allows umbrellas?"

    April 13, 2012 at 1:52 am | Reply
  2. CallingBS

    I agree that matchplay should be the format of golf in the Olympics. It's very exciting to watch the competition, and it seems the combination of skills drives the outcome. Hope golf stays a long time in the games and encourages many new players to the game!

    April 18, 2012 at 8:25 pm | Reply
  3. J Lopez

    I agree with the author. Stroke play may not be the best choice to entice new viewers or to provide anything different to the regular golf viewer. How about matchplay with teams representing each country? Some sort of mix between the Ryder cup (as he points out) and the Accenture Match Play. You start your brackets with teams of 2 (or 4?) with each country represented only once and pick a matchplay team format. Imagine team USA competing against team Spain in the quarterfinals. Now, that would be exciting!! Just a thought.

    May 4, 2012 at 9:24 pm | Reply
  4. B

    If the basis for qualification is the world golf ranking, then it would be impossible to let every country participate or to get an even amount of players from each country for a mini ryder cup format..... They should do it like soccer or some sort. Have the first 2 days be strokeplay, then take the top 64 players and their current order would establish the seeding for the match play to finish it off?

    May 9, 2012 at 8:22 pm | Reply
  5. Chuck B

    I love the idea of stroke play for the Olympics. It promotes consistency and endurance. Match play accentuates how good you are on a given day against a specific opponent. Stroke play is the marathon of golf. Match play is a series of 800 meter races.

    May 9, 2012 at 9:03 pm | Reply
  6. Rory Sellers

    "A series of delays lead to rumors that the selection committee had been split."

    Honestly, can't we just spell the word "led" correctly? Is that so much to ask? If there is any lead here, it's your attempt to write well.

    May 21, 2012 at 3:08 am | Reply
    • garymorley

      Hi, We have corrected that, thanks...

      May 21, 2012 at 9:51 am | Reply
  7. kmhess

    It's been too long, and golf belongs in the Olympic games! To anyone (Chad Smith) who thinks it shouldn't be an Olympic event; sorry, don't watch. There are plenty of individual sports with far less global popularity than golf that are in the games (archery, badminton, bmx cycling, equestrian, etc.). If you look at the facts, golf is in the top 5 sports around the world in terms of viewership and following, and in the top 3 in terms of revenue and financial impact. If you are personally a golf "hater", its because you yourself are likely not very good at golf, and you should refrain from bashing a sport so long cherished by so many around the world. Golf appeals to fans in every generation from every walk of life and will generate a great deal of excitement and momentum for the Olympic games in a fiscal sense as well as bringing in more fans. The debate here is how to conduct the competition, so as to please the MANY MANY fans who will have an interest; not the viability of golf as an Olympic sport. That has been decided by those who are qualified. But everyone has a right to their opinion, and I respect that while remaining thankful for the opportunity to share my own. I am looking forward to the 2016 games with extra enthusiasm because of golf, and I think that while match play would be more exciting, stroke play will also be exciting so long as the field, pairings, cut(s), and televised coverage are all executed properly.

    July 27, 2012 at 2:26 pm | Reply

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