A Tweak For Olympic Golf
In late 1957, the Dodgers and Giants rocked the baseball world when they announced they were uprooting their operations from Brooklyn and Upper Manhattan and heading west to Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively. At about the same time, the PGA of America announced that, beginning in 1958, its PGA Championship would change from match play to stroke play. That news barely drew a reaction; the decision was basically a no-brainer.
Fans of match play blamed television, but how could one blame TV? TV is in the entertainment business, and it's not entertaining to have a final-match blowout between two no-name players.
The final match-play chapters of the PGA in the 1950s had not been memorable. The 1953 final featured Walter Burkemo defeating Felice Torza. The last four match-play venues were Keller in 1954, Meadowbrook (Michigan, not Meadow Brook in New York) in 1955, Blue Hill (1956) and Miami Valley (1957). It was becoming a huge stretch to put the PGA in the same zip code as the U.S. Open and the Masters. The British Open--thanks in large part to Ben Hogan's win in 1953 and jet aviation--was soon to re-establish its global groove.
Rather than being cast as a culprit, I'd say television was the savior of the PGA Championship. And to have stars like Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Lee Trevino each winning multiple PGA titles while Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson couldn't win one added an annual PGA story line, much like Sam Snead's failure to win a U.S. Open. Glory's Last Shot: The PGA's standing as one of the four majors was secured.
So, happy 55th anniversary, PGA Championship II: Long may you run!
But what about televised match play? What about the oldest form of golf worldwide--the format played most frequently by recreational golfers (e.g., the $2 nassau)? How is our appetite to see televised mano-a-mano golf sated?
Today, we get our fix of professional match-play golf mainly through the biennial international competitions (Solheim, Ryder and Presidents cups, and for the amateurs, the Curtis and Walker cups), which feature partner and individual matches. The fact that these team competitions are limited to the stars of the game guarantees a high interest level. But other than the WGC-Accenture Match Play, the Volvo World Match Play and a few of the USGA's individual match-play championships like the college-dominated U.S. Amateur and Women's Amateur, that's pretty much it.
In the summer of 2016, golf makes its return to the Olympic Programme at Rio de Janeiro. The format has been proposed: 72 holes of individual stroke play. The women's and men's competitions will consist of small fields of 60 players, with eligibility based on the established world rankings, endorsed by golf's leading organizations and tours. Some voices have expressed disappointment that the format is not match play and/or team play. And some even want to see a throwback to the Avery Brundage era and limit the competition to amateurs. Sorry, folks, but today's Olympic Games--in almost all sports--showcase the best athletes competing in the most popular formats. So, for golf, that's professional golfers, competing at stroke play.
But the IOC is also committed to sports that have multiple disciplines and events, whether they be track and field, swimming, gymnastics, tennis--or golf. And the IOC takes seriously its credo of Citius, Altius, Fortius: Faster, Higher, Stronger.
As a first step to expanding golf's presence, here's a tweak for the International Golf Federation and the IOC to consider: Amend the 2016 format, for men and women, as follows, all of which can be accommodated in five days:
First three days: Play the 72 holes of stroke play, with the final day consisting of 36 holes (acknowledging the importance of speed of play and stamina, Citius and Fortius). Gold, silver and bronze medals will be awarded.
Day 4: Match play for the low four individuals (18 holes), based on the stroke-play results.
Day 5: 36-hole match for the gold and silver medals, and a 36-hole consolation match for the bronze medal for the semi-final losers.
Winning one individual gold medal representing one's country is an athletic accomplishment of the highest level. Winning two individual gold medals: rarefied air.
Citius, Altius, Fortius...