Understanding Olympic Golf


By Tyler Olson

Well folks, we are now living the dream. In a little over a year, we will all be glued to our television sets, computers, and smartphones to get constant updates from Rio on how the Olympic athletes are doing our respective nations proud. Not only will we be treated to our favorite mainstays of the Summer Olympics like swimming, dashes of various distances, and of course badminton, but now golf for the first time since 1904. As a hardcore golf fan and a red blooded American patriot, I am incredibly pumped up. I mean, what could possibly be better than watching the sport I love while maniacally chanting, “USA,” over and over again? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

However, not too many people really understand the system by which the Olympic golfers will be chosen or even how the event will be played. Are there qualifying tournaments that players need to play through like in swimming or track with time trials? Are the Official World Golf Rankings involved somehow? Is this an every man for himself stroke play tourney or will we get to see Jim Furyk and Jordan Spieth play a worse ball scramble against Adam Scott and Jason Day?

The Tournament

To understand all of the Olympic rules, we must first know who exactly makes them. The International Olympic Commission (IOC) relinquished most of the control of the golf event to the International Golf Federation (IGF). The IGF is an organization dedicated to Olympic Golf and the growth of the game worldwide and it’s in charge of both the selection of the Olympian golfers and the format of the tournaments. A gander at their website reveals that both men and women will field 60 players in 72 hole individual stroke play tournaments with no team element. The reasoning behind the decision to go with stroke play is difficult to argue with; the true Olympic champion should be the person who hits the ball the fewest times, not he who can win quirky games. The IGF consulted with Padraig Harrington and Michelle Wie, some of the foremost Olympic golf evangelists to come to this and many other decisions. The stroke play approach takes a simpler approach than other international golf competitions like the Ryder Cup, which uses match play with alternate shot, better ball, etc. and will make the Olympic tournaments more like a PGA or European Tour stop.


The selection process, however, is a little bit more laborious than the straightforward stroke play format. Firstly, the top fifteen in the “Olympic Golf Rankings,” automatically receive a spot on the Olympic squads with up to four representatives per country. The men’s and women’s OGR are complexly determined based on prize money in several major tours, strength of field adjustments, and other variables. There’s also one reserved spot for Brazil as the host country and a requirement that, “each of the five continents of the Olympic Movement will be guaranteed at least one spot in the men’s and women’s competitions, respectively.” This selection process runs parallel with the IGF’s goals of globalizing golf and bringing excitement for the sport worldwide and especially where golf is not as big a sport like in Latin America. For example, Felipe Aguilar of Chile is currently ranked 202nd in the Official World Golf Rankings but is 48th in the Olympic Golf Rankings. Likewise, Fabirizo Zanotti of Paraguay is ranked 140th in the OWGR but 41st in the OGR. Both owe their rankings to an OGR system favoring golfers from smaller countries where golf is not as popular.

The Course

Courtesy of Hanse Golf Design

Courtesy of Hanse Golf Design

The links style course that the Olympic athletes will play is a Gil Hanse design built in the Barra da Tijuca zone of Rio. As of now, the course is more or less 60% complete with irrigation reaching the majority of the course and almost all of it greening in to some extent. The photos so far seem to indicate that especially wayward drives, instead of collecting in hip high grass traditional to the links style, will roll into packed down sandy much like those in Pinehurst No. 2 from the 2014 US Open. In keeping with its links inspiration, however, the course will have relatively sparse trees. The initial construction of the course was behind schedule, but it’s picked up the pace well enough to where it should be ready for a test event in early 2016, possibly the Latin American Amateur Championship. Even so, come time for the actual Olympic tournament, the course will remain mostly untested.


Any system of selection would end up being criticized, but the IGF’s formula to determine the OGR has created some controversy over whether it’s fair or not. Because the US can only bring four top fifteen men to the Olympics, top ranked golfers like Dustin Johnson, Jimmy Walker, JB Holmes, Patrick Reed, Phil Mickelson, and Matt Kuchar will be left out as the rankings are more in favor of middling golfers like Zanotti and Aguilar. A similar situation exists for US and South Korean women who dominate the world rankings. Also, places like South Africa, Great Britain, and Ireland will be limited to just two representatives despite having many golfers ranked in the OWGR top 60. Another criticism of the IGF is of the four day stroke play tournament format, which is perceived as patently uncreative. A lot of people like the excitement of the Ryder Cup format and were hoping that Olympic golf would take a similar shape. The match play format with best ball, alternate shot, and other twists can bring out the best in golfers and in the crazed patriotism of the fans. The stroke play format though, is still the most pure way to decide the best golfer on earth, especially since medals are going to individuals and not countries (sadly). Another worry, however, is with the field excluding many of the world’s best in favor of diversity, that someone like Rory McIlroy or Lydia Ko could simply run away from the field and make it a very boring week.

A few pro golfers are still just simply not excited about the prospect of Olympic golf. Adam Scott of Australia is the most notable of these critics, as he calls the Olympics just an, “exhibition,” that he will only participate in if it is convenient to his tournament schedule. Most players, however, are not on the same page with Scott. Sweden’s Henrik Stenson says, “I see it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be part of the Olympics,” while American Keegan Bradley gushed that, “If I made the Olympic team, I would be there in a second.” Despite Scott’s apprehension, most of the world’s golfers and fans seem to agree with Bradley and Stenson and are excitedly looking forwards towards the restoration of one of the most global sports to the most prominent global stage there is.

In Conclusion



Extra Reading

Olympic Golf Rankings: http://www.igfgolf.org/olympic-games/ogr-men/

Another take: http://espn.go.com/golf/story/_/id/10464853/olympic-sized-questions-golf

Olympics Site: http://www.rio2016.com/en/the-games/olympic/sports/golf

Official Rankings System and Tournament Format: http://www.igfgolf.org/olympic-games/qualification-system/

International Golf Federation: http://www.igfgolf.org/

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