How Olympic Golf Went From an “Exhibition” to a Tournament of Real Value

By Tyler Olson

                 Justin Rose MedalI’ve never been so happy to be proven so wrong.  Circumstances leading up to the Olympic golf tournament such as format, lack of big names, timing and so on led me to erroneously believe, that the tournament would be a flop- an event with little prestige, intrigue or value. Due to the circumstances, I absolutely was not the only one to think that. When the event was added to the Olympics, the golf community was generally ambivalent, with some pockets of excitement. Adam Scott and Rory McIlroy were the most notable players who simply did not care enough to make the trip to Rio. The stroke play format and the qualification system, which had quotas for how many players could attend from each country, thus excluding some great players from the US and countries in Europe, seemed to foreshadow a routine tournament without enough star power to make things exciting. And that was all before the Zika fiasco.

But despite all of that, Olympic golf succeeded. It succeeded because the players who were there, the fans who attended, and the members of the press covering the tournament placed value in winning a medal for both the players and their respective countries. Rickie Fowler used his huge social media presence between Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat to give the average fan a window into the Olympic experience. Henrik Stenson competed with everything he had to bring home golf gold for Sweden. Bubba Watson tempered his usually irritable self and seemed to truly enjoy the tournament and the games in general. However, the most influential players were gold medalist Justin Rose and bronze medalist Matt Kuchar. Kuchar, who did not even know the Olympic tournament was stroke play just a week before, charged up the leaderboard with a 63 on the final day to sneak in for a back door bronze. He oozed class in his post-round interview.

“I was amazed by the nerves. I can assure I’ve never been so excited to finish top three in my life. The pride is busting out of my chest,” he gushed in his conversation with the Golf Channel. “I’d love to carry the momentum like this. There’s certainly nothing like winning a PGA Tour event. Here, I realize it’s third, but I’ve never felt this sort of pride busting out of my chest before.”

Rose battled Henrik Stenson all of Sunday in something resembling the 1977 Open at Turnberry’s “Dual in the Sun” between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus. When he finally secured the gold, he put his win in a light greater than individual or even national victory:

“It’s resonated far wider than maybe my (2013) U.S. Open victory did. Basically, people are saying to me that their kids, for example, have never been into golf before could identify with the sport a lot more because of what it represented,” he said. “They could relate to it, given all the athletics and all the sports they had watched and seen athletes achieve. It brought golf into a context they could understand. They may not know what it (golf) is all about, but the fact it came down to the final hole, they could identify with that, that it was really close. It’s a hard-fought thing to win a gold medal, to win any tournament. I just think it resonated with a younger audience. I think it takes it out of the golf world and brings it into the sports world.”

These players and everything surrounding the links in Rio are what elevated Olympic golf as a triumph in a way no one could have anticipated. That momentum will carry to Tokyo in 2020 and should lead to the sport staying in the games beyond then. Players who skipped out on Rio will now recognize the value of golf gold and make the trip to Tokyo.  In much the same way as the majors are venerated globally, Olympic golf should now occupy such rarified air.

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