Tokyo 2020: Lure of gold fails to sway top men golfers

Women players showing more enthusiasm and desire to embrace across-sport camaraderie

The 18th hole green and clubhouse ahead of the Tokyo Olympic Games at the Kasumigaseki country club in Kawagoe. File photograph: Getty

The 18th hole green and clubhouse ahead of the Tokyo Olympic Games at the Kasumigaseki country club in Kawagoe. File photograph: Getty

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It seems clear that the Olympic Games loves golf. But does golf pretend to even like the Olympic Games?

For everyone, including professionals, the notion of the Olympics is an event that either lives in their heads as something special or just another tournament lumped into a crowded space every four years.

For the second time since Rio 2016, when golf was returned to the schedule after more than 100 years, the top names in the game are continuing to have commitment issues and are passing on the opportunity to compete for a gold medal.

Dustin Johnson, the number two player in the world, announced in March that his stance hadn’t changed and that he would be skipping Tokyo having also passed on Rio five years ago.

In April, it was Australian Adam Scott who wasn’t feeling the Tokyo love. Scott also didn’t compete at the 2016 Games in Brazil. It was reported that his “time and schedule” would not allow him to travel to Japan in that part of July.

The five-ringed competition never rises above the importance of many of the established and cash-rich golf tournaments

Scheduling maybe, or is it really a simple issue of priorities with the Olympics? In the minds of some golfers, the five-ringed competition just never rises above the importance of many of the established and cash-rich golf tournaments on the tour.

The British Open at Royal St George’s ended on Sunday, just five days before Toyko’s opening ceremony. The men’s competition kicks off on July 29th and is followed directly by the WGC St Jude Invitational, an event with a $10.5 million (€8.9 million) purse. Soon after that comes the three-week FedEx Cup Playoffs.

That essentially means travelling from the British Open in England, to the Olympics in Japan and then to Memphis in the United States in the space of a few weeks.

There were genuine concerns in 2016, which Rory McIlroy voiced at the time, over the Zika virus. That led to 21 players in qualifying positions deciding not to play. The group included what then amounted to the top-four male players in the world: Jason Day, Johnson, McIlroy and Jordan Spieth.

McIlroy has warmed to the event in the intervening years, while Shane Lowry, with his appetite for all things sport, has always expressed an ambition to compete for Ireland. Lowry like Spain’s world number one John Rahm has bought into the idea of the Games and is another who sees the Olympics as a thing of wonder and has committed to play.

“In my case I want to play,” said Rahm in May. “It’s an absolute dream of mine to be an Olympian. I’ve been able to win championships representing Spain as an amateur in almost every level and to bring back the gold medal would be something amazing.”

The men’s and women’s competitions will be 72-hole stroke-play tournaments held at Kasumigaseki Country Club in Kasahata, Saitama, about 35 miles northwest of Tokyo. As was the case in Rio, the field in both events will consist of 60 players representing their respective home countries.

The top-15 players in the Olympic Golf Rankings (which essentially mirror the Official World Golf Ranking for men and the Rolex Rankings for women) are eligible for the Olympics up to a maximum of four golfers per country.

With Johnson out of the USA running, the next four are new British Open champion Collin Morikawa, Justin Thomas, Bryson De Chambeau and Xander Schauffele.

When tennis was reintroduced in 1988 as a full medal sport, it also took time for players to show it some respect

After the top 15, the field will be filled until it gets to 60 golfers, less than half the size of a regular PGA event. The top two ranked players qualify from any country that does not have two or more players from the top 15. The host country, Japan, is also guaranteed at least two golfers in the field.

When tennis was reintroduced in 1988 as a full medal sport, it also took time for players to show it some respect. Steffi Graf, like Lowry and Rahm, immediately put it in her schedule and won the gold medal, Gabriela Sabatini took silver in the women’s event. But there was resistance from some of the top men players.

Top-ranked Swede Mats Wilander reportedly pulled out due to shin splints two days after winning the longest US Open men’s final in history, a near-five-hour, five-set win over Ivan Lendl.

But there was reason to doubt the seriousness of Wilander’s injury based on comments earlier in 1988.

“An Olympic gold medal wouldn’t be like winning the Davis Cup or a Grand Slam tournament,” said Wilander. And many players would have agreed with him.

He then returned from his injury to the ATP Tour during the Olympics, winning an event in Palermo, Italy. When the US men’s Olympic team was chosen in December 1987, it did not include Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors or John McEnroe.

Back then, as seems to be the case in golf now, the European players were more conscious of what place the Olympics held in their thinking and what it represented to them. Europeans seem naturally more drawn to the history.

They appear to get the across-sport team camaraderie, the ceremony and its history

There are not many events outside the Ryder Cup, where players directly represent their country, march together as a team and hear their national anthem played in the stadium, although this will be restricted in Tokyo. McEnroe later said he regretted not playing, while Agassi won gold at Atlanta 1996.

For its reintroduction in 1988, the then world number three, Stefan Edberg, was the only player in the top nine to compete. He was upset by Czechoslovakia’s Miloslav Mecir in the semi-finals. Mecir went on to beat Tim Mayotte for gold.

On the women’s side, all but one player ranked in the Women’s Tennis Association top 20 the week of the Olympics played in Seoul if they were eligible, which mirrors the way golf is now, the women players showing a great deal more enthusiasm to take part. They appear to get the across-sport team camaraderie, the ceremony and its history.

Danielle Kang, now sixth in the rankings and eligible to play for the USA team is as far away from the thinking of Johnson and Scott as can be.

“The Olympic Games are very important to me because it’s one game where the entire world gets together,” Kang told Golf Digest in May.

“They are just there for one purpose: to compete. Sometimes it’s really hard to find peace in this world with a lot of things going on everywhere and different countries, different issues, but Olympic Games, it’s the truest games of all . . . It’s a dream for a lot of people, to even watch and witness, and to compete as an athlete is a dream of mine.”

Johnson may come around in three years’ time in Paris, Scott too. But for now it remains tough love for Olympic golf just as it was for tennis, from the male players at least.

Tokyo 2020

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