August 12, 2009

Olympic-Sized Boost For Golf

With the decison to recommend golf's admittance to the Olympics, the sport's role as a world-wide ambassador to people takes on a new significance

The decision by the International Olympic Committee executive board to add golf to the 2016 Summer Games could result in the most important grow-the-game program in the history of the sport. If the full IOC accepts the Aug. 13 recommendation of the 15-member committee when it votes Oct. 9 in Copenhagen the profile of golf will be raised worldwide as nations great and small scramble for Olympic gold.

Francis Ouimet, a 20-year-old American amateur, ignited golf fever in the United States when he won the 1913 U.S. Open at the Country Club near Boston, fending off the British stars Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in an 18-hole playoff.

Arnold Palmer, the son of a course superintendent, took the game out of country clubs and to the masses when he won the 1958 Masters and six more major championships by 1964.

South African Gary Players became the first global player in the 1960s and Seve Ballesteros of Spain took the game to the European mainland in the 1980s.

Now, Tiger Woods has spread the game to every corner of the globe by becoming one of the most recognized athletes in the world. The IOC no doubt saw the triple-digit TV ratings boost when Woods won the Buick Open and the Bridgestone Invitational the last two weeks. What would it have meant to the game to have the whole world watching when Tiger hit that remarkable 8-iron from 178 yards to six inches on No. 16 at Firestone?

Those who say Olympic golf is unnecessary because the sport already has major championships that define the quality of a career are what my friend Dan Jenkins would call point-missers. This is truly a situation where the winner of the Olympic gold medal is not as important as the competitors chasing it and the nations they come from.

What Olympic golf will mean is a television audience of more than 1 billion rather than a few million. What Olympic golf will mean is government funding for developmental programs in scores of countries. And what OIympic golf will mean is a surge of talent into the game.

"Young people who dream of becoming the next [NBA star] Yao Ming or [Olympic gold medal hurdler] Liu Ziang will instead shift their sights to Tiger Woods," says Tenniel Chu, executive director of the 12-course Mission Hills Golf Club in Shenzhen, on the impact Olympic golf will have on the sport in China, the most populous nation.

Golf and rugby beat out squash, softball, baseball, karate and roller sports in gaining the backing of the executive committee. The proposed format is 72-hole stroke play for men and women with 60 players in each field. The top-15 in the world rankings qualify automatically. When the final vote is taken in October, the IOC will also decide whether the 2016 Games will be held in Chicago, Tokyo, Madrid or Rio de Janeiro. Golf was contested in the 1900 Olympics (Paris) and in 1904 (St. Louis).

Part of what was needed to open the door to the Olympics was convincing the IOC golf's biggest names would compete. A smiling Tiger Woods said Tuesday at the PGA Championship he'd play in 2016, when he would be 40, "If I am not retired by then." And Padraig Harrington, the three-time major champion from Ireland, gushed: "I'd love to be an Olympian. Doesn't that sound good?"

In many countries, government financial support is heavily skewed in favor of sports from which it can gain the public relations boost derived from winning Olympic medals. Youth development programs in places like China, or even in an already golf-passionate place like Australia, will be better funded with golf in the Olympics.

"The golfing population [in China] is growing at a rate of 50 percent annually," says Chu. "Olympic golf will do nothing but increase this already robust rate of growth. It will lend even more credence to the game among the general population, and likely lead to increased finding from the government."

The push to get golf into the Olympics came at a difficult time because the recession gave critics an opportunity to paint the sport as an elitist activity and the professional tours as boondoggles for corporations in financial services, automotive and other distressed areas of the economy. But that attack -- launched after Northern Trust Bank entertained clients at the PGA Tour stop in Los Angeles last February – provided the game a chance to refocus the conversation and educate both lawmakers and the public.

The tour launched a campaign to remind the public of the millions of dollars annually its tournaments generate for local charity, the tens of millions poured into local economies and, on a broader level, used The First Tee as an example of the positive values the self-policing culture of golf brings to young people. Golf doesn't take -- it gives.

The world was reminded that, far from its elitist stereotype, the best player in the world -- Woods -- is the child of an African-American man and a woman from Thailand. And, far from privilege, Woods was raised in the modest household of a career military man.

The crucial turning point in the bid came at a meeting of leaders from the world tours at the 2008 Masters when PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem got on board the Olympic bus. Until then, he had been concerned the Games would disrupt the heart of the tour's season. When Finchem came to see the impact Olympic golf would have on growing the game all the important people in the world golf community were finally on the same page. PGA Tour executive VP for international affairs Ty Votaw was loaned to the Olympic Golf Committee to oversee the effort.

In June, a delegation that included Votaw, Peter Dawson of the R&A, Chako Yaguchi of the Japan LPGA and players Annika Sorenstam, Colin Montgomerie and Finchem traveled to Lausanne, Switzerland to make its presentation to the IOC. The delegation and the video they presented emphasized the global, grassroots nature of golf.

While golf faces significant challenges in terms of providing affordable, accessible and timely golf, the very nature of the sport offers every reason to be optimistic about its growth. It can be played alone, without teammates, and with a minimum of equipment. The image of a solitary child chipping to a green in the fading light of day, trying to make an up-and-down to win the Open Championship may never be replaced by the dream to win Olympic gold, but initial exposure to golf for many could come through the Games.

Will Olympic golf rival the major championships? No. But that is not the point. It's not the fifth major, it's not another major -- it is the Olympics, and to be able to say you are an Olympic champion is an honor different than any other in the athletic world. And I'm thinking Tiger wants to join his buddy Michael Jordan as a gold medal winner. One more vote -- that in October in Copenhagen by the full IOC -- and he will have that opportunity.