Golf majors way ahead of Olympic ideal for sport’s Rio contenders

Winning a medal appears some way down the agenda for golf’s elite

Rio de Janeiro will host the 2016 Olympics, at which golf will make a reappearance. Photograph: Buda Mendes/Getty Images

Rio de Janeiro will host the 2016 Olympics, at which golf will make a reappearance. Photograph: Buda Mendes/Getty Images


Some people can go their entire life without playing a single round of golf and unless something drastic changes I’m about halfway there.

If there is one sure way of spoiling a good run then it must be walking around a golf course carrying a set of steel clubs and hitting a small white ball. Or else it hasn’t yet been invented.

In fact my house is just around the corner from Glencullen Golf Club, facing onto Willie Fox’s Pitch ‘n’ Putt, and I can’t pass either of them without wanting to flip off my shoes and go running barefoot across the rolling fairways and soft greens. That risks being chased out by an angry man wielding a very long rake, shouting at me to get the hell off. But it is always worth it.

When my dad retired from running my mother foolishly bought him a set of golf clubs, and they sat under the stairs for the next 10 years until a neighbour wanted to know if he could borrow them. When he offered to give them back my mother told him don’t be stupid. Some people will never get golf and we are some of those people.

None of this has anything to do with whether or not golf should have been brought back into the Olympics, and yet no harm putting it out there. Because plenty of people are excited about golf being played in Rio in 2016 and good luck to them. Although judging by what Rory McIlroy has to say about it, was it honestly the right call?

“An Olympic medal is still not as big as a major championship,” mused McIlroy this week, after declaring that he didn’t actually feel more British than Irish after all. “Maybe give it four or five Games down the line, and maybe one day the Olympics will be able to get up to that level, but for me the four majors are the biggest prizes in our game.”

McIlroy, we all know, is an honest young man. And his decision to represent Ireland in Rio, and not Great Britain, can’t have been entirely straightforward. (He can, by the way, change his mind again for Tokyo 2020.) But by admitting that winning an Olympic medal would rank somewhere below all four majors he actually questioned why golf itself should be represented. Part of the Olympic ideal, or what’s left of it, is that winning a medal should be the pinnacle of that sport, or at least very close to it. By McIlroy’s own admission that is not the case with golf.

Is he put off by the fact there is no prize money at the Olympics? Was competing in Rio not written into his Nike contract? Or perhaps it’s a reminder that the reason golf was dropped from the Olympics in the first place is because most golfers were not interested?

When at the 1900 Olympics in Paris golf was introduced at the behest of Baron de Coubertin, the few participants were actually pulled from other sports. The American Charles Sands won the men’s competition, having travelled to Paris to compete in tennis, and fellow American Margaret Abbot won the women’s competition, having travelled to Paris to study art. It’s said that Abbot died in 1955 unaware that she’d won an Olympic title.

Four years later, at the 1904 Olympics in St Louis, only the men’s golf competition survived, and was won by Canadian George Lyon, who beat six Americans. There was, however, also a team event, and the Americans won gold, silver and bronze. Lyon then showed up at the London Olympics in 1908 to defend his title, only to discover he was the sole entrant: the British golfers boycotted the event because it clashed with other tournaments. And even though Lyon was still offered the gold medal, he politely declined. With that golf went the way of motor boating, polo, and pelota basque, and was dropped from the Olympics.

Until 2009, when at the IOC Congress in Copenhagen, and after a carefully orchestrated campaign that featured Tiger Woods and our own Padraig Harrington, golf was voted back in for Rio – 63-27 – along with rugby sevens, on an even more favourable vote of 81-8. Rugby last appeared at the 1924 Olympics in Paris, as the full 15 a side, but after almost 40,000 French spectators watched in horror as their team was thrashed 17-3 by the upstart Americans, that was dropped also.

Golf and rugby effectively filled the spots left by baseball and softball, which were dropped from the London Olympics. Last year, the IOC then recommended that wrestling be dropped also, or at least go to war with squash and baseball-softball to be voted back in among the 25 core sports for 2020. For wrestlers, the Olympics being the unquestionable pinnacle of the sport, that was like a death sentence. Without a seat at the five-ringed circus, or more importantly a slice of the great big IOC TV money pie, they were doomed: they’ve since won the battle to survive.

The IOC have argued that without opening their doors to professional golfers – like they’ve already done with tennis and basketball – that TV money pie wouldn’t be nearly as sweet. The question, therefore, is not so much whether golf needs the Olympics, or indeed whether the Olympics need golf, but what exactly is the pinnacle of sport anymore? McIlroy may have his own ideas on that, but shouldn’t be let spoil it for those who put their entire life on hold trying to reach it.

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