April 14, 2008

Olympic Movement

Golf's governing bodies are uniting to get the sport into the 2016 Games

Getting golf into the Olympics is the best way to grow the game, say officials.

Getting golf into the Olympics is the best way to grow the game, say officials.

Among the many fascinating things about the Masters is that for one week, Augusta National GC plays host not only to the world's top golfers but the greatest gathering of powerbrokers in golf. While fans focus on the players inside the ropes, those who call the shots in the game off the course huddle in whispered conversations under the large oak tree behind the clubhouse or gather in one of the many buildings discretely hidden on the property. One such meeting occurred on the eve of the tournament concerning what many believe is a crucial step to growing the game: getting golf into the Olympics.

Among the participants in this gathering last Wednesday were David Fay, the USGA executive director and World Golf Foundation chairman, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens, PGA of America CEO Joe Steranka, Augusta National GM Jim Armstrong, R&A chief executive Peter Dawson and European Tour CEO George O'Grady. According to several sources familiar with the meeting, everyone agreed about the importance of being part of the quadrennial event for the growth of golf, with the PGA Tour being the lone body with some reservations because of a potential disruption to its season.

Still, the International Golf Federation, the governing body that the International Olympic Committee recognizes as the representative of golf worldwide, has drawn up a plan for getting golf on the agenda of next year's IOC meetings to determine the program for the 2016 Games.

Meanwhile, after being considered by many as a possible obstacle in presenting a united front to the IOC, Finchem told Golf World Monday that the PGA Tour was now on board with the plan.

"I am now of the belief the time is right for golf to become an Olympic sport," Finchem said. "There is work to be done, questions to be answered and issues to be resolved, but I am excited about taking a leadership role with other executives in the game to make this a reality for the 2016 Olympic Games."

The scheduling issue won't be known until the site for the 2016 Games is selected. If it's in Chicago, one candidate, the Games could conflict with the FedEx Cup playoffs. If Rio de Janeiro wins the bid, the Games will be in late fall, creating less of a problem. "It's only once every four years, and they will have seven years to prepare their schedule," a source said last week. "It should not be that much of a problem for the tour."

According to documents obtained by Golf World, a short list of sports to be considered for possible inclusion in the 2016 games -- probably five to seven -- will be determined later this year. The heads of those sports will complete a questionnaire and will be visited at a major event by a member of the IOC program committee. By the summer of 2009, a report on the candidate sports and current sports in the Games will be published. In October 2009, the IOC Executive Board will decide on the 28 sports for the 2016 games.

Sources familiar with the discussions say the key areas in presenting a proposal to the IOC are an anti-doping policy (which explains the programs of the LPGA and PGA Tour this year); reasonable assurance that the best players (professionals, not amateurs) will compete; and the need to promote a united front to convince the IOC that golf is speaking with one voice. Finchem's support was a huge step in that direction.

It's not just various governing bodies on board with the idea but players as well."I do think having golf become an Olympic sport is a very important thing, and I would definitely play if given the opportunity to represent my country," said Phil Mickelson, who will be 46 in 2016, last week. It's a sign to the IOC that at least some top players are interested in competing.

"The countries where golf is well established are more neutral, but of the 56 members of the International Golf Federation who responded, 50 were overwhelmingly in support of golf in the Olympics," Dawson said at the Masters. "If you are in the business of growing the game, Olympic golf is the single biggest endeavor you can pursue. There are those who believe if tennis had not become an Olympic sport, there would not have been the Russian tennis boom." More government and private money goes to sports in the Olympics program, Dawson explained.

Augusta National GC threw its weight behind the Olympic movement when club chairman Billy Payne, who headed Atlanta's successful effort to host the 1996 Summer Games (and the unsuccessful effort to include golf in those games, at Augusta National), said last Wednesday that inclusion would "jump-start golf in a lot of countries." Later, Payne told Golf World: "I think it could be very important. The emphasis, spotlight and financial benefit from being an Olympic sport could help grow the game."

The International Golf Federation's proposal says that any country with a player in the top 300 in the World Golf Ranking would send its two highest-ranked players to the Games, with an as-yet-unspecified limit on the number of competitors from each continent. Any country without a player in the top 300 may nominate one player to be considered for one of seven wildcard spots.

The Olympic competition would be four days of individual stroke play for men and women. "I'm optimistic," Fay said. "We stumbled last time [in 2005, when the effort was made to add it to the 2012 Games in London] because golf didn't have a unified voice. Unless and until we get all the professional bodies behind this, it is not going to work."

Now, with the PGA Tour behind it, the missing piece of the puzzle seems to be in place.