October 8, 2009

Let The Games Begin

By being included in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, golf is a big winner

A trip to China in the spring of 2007 -- before the world economy was revealed to be one big Bernie Madoff-like Ponzi scheme -- left this indelible image. City after city I visited -- Shanghai, Shenzhen, Haikou -- was clogged with construction. And each construction site swarmed with China's most abundant natural resource -- people. The atmosphere of activity was astounding. Growth was everywhere.

Viewed purely from the somewhat selfish corner from which I watch the world, I could not help but think, "What if that energy and those resources were unleashed on golf?" Not that constructing a golf course is more important than building highways and hospitals, but it is impossible to spend any time in China without being blown away by its enormous growth potential in absolutely every area imaginable.

Now, with golf restored to the Olympics beginning in 2016, we may find out, we may see that growth come to the game of golf and the business of golf not just in China but throughout the world. And that, my friends, is the real significance of the vote in Copenhagen Oct. 9 by the International Olympic Committee.

Too much of the conversation about the appropriateness of golf in the Summer Games has been misdirected. The competition, really, is secondary to the preparation. This is not about whether winning Olympic gold is more or less important than winning the Masters. This is about growing the game of golf, and from that perspective, the decision by the IOC to include golf in the Rio Games may well trigger the greatest growth spurt in the history of golf.

The reasoning is as simple as this: It is easier to attract money -- both governmental and corporate -- to sports that are included in the Olympics. This is true for two reasons: First, the Summer Games provide the biggest platform in all of sports. Billions of people watch. Advertisers and endorsement partners love that exposure. Second, nations love to win Olympic medals and will invest in sports that can bring home the gold. Look at the impact Yao Ming has had on basketball in China.

According to a study commissioned by the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, there are about 250,000 registered golfers with handicaps in China, a country of 1.3 billion people. That mean 0.019 percent of the population plays golf. In Sweden, 6.6 percent of the people play. It's 2.4 percent in Australia, 1.8 percent in Great Britain and 1.3 percent in the United States.

If the participation rate in China could be brought up to the same as in the United States -- 1.3 percent -- that would add 16.9 million new golfers to the game's talent pool and economic base. That's the equivalent of creating a golf economy that is more than four times the size of that in the United States, which is by far the largest in the world.

Several year's ago, then-LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw said at the GOLF 20/20 conference, "Our challenge is to identify the next Korea." What he meant was to identify those parts of the world where golf's popularity can increase as dramatically as it has in Korea, which saw Y.E Yang win this year's PGA Championship and Eun-Hee Ji capture the U.S. Women's Open.

While China is the example for potential growth most everyone points to, the significance of the successful Olympic bid it that it extends that growth potential globally.

Perhaps Latin America will be the next golf hot spot – Angel Cabrera is from Argentina, Camilo Villegas is Colombian and Brazil was just awarded the 2016 Summer Games. And golf courses -- albeit for tourists and traveling businessmen -- are being built at a ferocious rate in places like Malaysia and Vietnam.

Golf was not always as popular in the United States as it is now. Before World War II the game was confined primarily behind the exclusive and expensive walls of private clubs. But after the war, a new phenomena came to America. People who carried their lunch to work and didn't live on expense accounts began to have leisure time and the money to do something with that time.

In one of those fortunate aligning of the stars, the United States had eight years of a golf-passionate President, Dwight Eisenhower, and midway through his reign a charismatic working class hero named Arnold Palmer started winning golf tournaments. The final piece to the puzzle fell into place when television, new to the world of sports, carried the swashbuckling exploits of Palmer into the homes of millions of Americans.

Imagine the impact on the game if Tiger Woods receives the worldwide exposure the Olympics gets every four years. And even if Tiger is still not competing in 2016 -- he'll be 40 then -- someone else will be.

The people who will be the best players in the world seven years from now -- both male and female -- may very well not be on our radar screen right now. When Jack Nicklaus won his 18th and final major championship at the 1986 Masters who would have dreamed that a mere decade later someone even better would come along?

The IOC vote was a personal victory for Votaw, the PGA Tour executive VP who led the effort for the last 15 months, Peter Dawson of the R&A, David Fay of the USGA and a small circle of others who have been campaigning for years to get golf back into the Olympics. More importantly, it is a victory for the game of golf.

Now, when searching for the next Korea, when looking for places where the game can grow, the whole world is in play. It's seven years until golf returns at the 2016 Summer Games, but the spending will start now. As a sport and as a business, the game of golf leaves Copenhagen as a winner. Let the Games begin.