Olympic Golf: Dead on Arrival?

By Tyler Olson

“Now, I may be miss-informed or just don’t know. You may have to help me. Is there no team format at all? When they first talked about it, if there were four Americans it was the two highest ranked and they were going to combine the scores for a team event. There is no combined? No team event whatsoever? Just an individual? We did the same thing at the World Cup: 72 hole stroke play. I played with Kevin Streelman. We never played together but we did represent the United States in a team format. That was my initial impression of what was happening with the Olympics, but I’m incorrect on that?”

That was Matt Kuchar’s answer at a press conference the other day as he was seemingly bewildered by Jason Soebel of ESPN’s question, asking if he would be pulling for the other American golfers who made the team at the Olympics. Confusion. Disorganization. Disappointment. This is just another canary in the coalmine signaling that Olympic golf is likely to utterly fail at the Olympics.

Back when golf was added to the list of sports that would compete in the Olympics there was so much hope that putting golf on such a contemporary world stage, with everyone watching, would be a key in growing the game for the future. Unfortunately, all the excitement when I wrote the primer on Olympic golf just over a year ago has simply evaporated.

We can blame it on a lot of things. Zika. The poor timing of the Olympics coming right after the PGA Championship ended and as the scramble for FedEx cup points is just heating up. The lack of enthusiasm for the Olympics from many of the world’s best golfers. When it comes down to it, Olympic golf may have been set up for failure.

The biggest and most avoidable problem that will hurt the games will be the format: not a team game as Kuchar erroneously thought, but a simple 72 hole individual stroke play tournament. 72 hole stroke play events with no team element are on TV every single week with the European Tour, PGA Tour, and all the Majors. While golf enthusiasts are still interested in the every-man-for-himself marathons, the casual viewer clearly struggles to get interested. Matchplay team events like the Ryder Cup are always the most exciting and should have been used as the model for the Olympics. There’s nothing like seeing Patrick Reed shushing a hostile European crowd or hearing chants of “USA” as Bubba Watson tees up his ball and stokes the crowd to be as loud as possible while he hits his shot.

Why do people tune into the Olympics in the first place? It’s certainly not because of the general public’s insatiable love for watching swimming and ping pong and badminton. Its because of pure patriotism. It’s because we want to see the representative’s from our country beat out those from all the other inferior nations to prove our country is better. It’s because of the excitement. That’s why the Ryder Cup is so successful and why, with no team format, Olympic golf seems to be missing the point.

Of course, we can’t foresee what may happen in this year’s Olympic games or those in 2020. It may be an exciting dual between two top golfers from opposing countries that glues everyone to their TV sets. Maybe a no-name player from Brazil or Paraguay stages a huge comeback on the final day to beat out one of the titans of the game that didn’t drop out. Maybe in 2020 all the golfers who didn’t participate this time are drawn to the Olympic stage and put on the show we all had in mind from the beginning. But there’s really no indication of that happening. Going off of what we can see, it seems that Olympic golf will flounder quietly into irrelevance and soon enough disappear from the games just as memberships keep disappearing from our clubs.

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