News & ToursJune 10, 2009

Golf In The Olympics

HAVRE DE GRACE, MD. -- This week's McDonald's LPGA Championship is the first played since 1994 in which Annika Sorenstam is not in the field. In that stretch of 14 tournaments she won three times (2003-05) and her T-30 in 1998 was the only time she finished outside the top 16.

But while Sorenstam has stepped away from competitive golf, she is involved in a major championship effort of a different sort  that will bridge the LPGA Championship and next week's U.S. Open at Bethpage -- trying to get golf into the 2016 Olympic games, an effort that could be the single most-important grow-the-game effort for golf.

Sorenstam, who has her hands full with a golf academy (photo below) and the launch this year of a fragrance and a wine, is part of the six-person delegation traveling to International Olympic Committee headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland for a June 15 presentation that will determine if golf is one of two sports added from among seven candidates.


In addition to Sorenstam, the contingent making the presentation includes PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, tour executive vice president Ty Votaw, who has coordinated the Olympic bid effort, R&A chief executive Peter Dawson, Colin Montgomerie and Chako Higuchi, the head of the Japan LPGA whose victory in the 1977 LPGA Championship is the only LPGA major won by a player from Japan.

The bid is considered to have a good chance because of the vastly changing demographics of the game. It is a much more global game that has broken out of the stereotype of a white, elitist sport. The best player in the world -- Tiger Woods -- had an African-American father, a mother from Thailand and was brought up in a career military family, hardly with a silver spoon. The best of the women -- Lorena Ochoa -- is from Mexico.

Moreover, world-class players have emerged from Japan, Korea, Thailand, China, India, South Africa, Argentina, Colombia and a host of other countries not widely represented in golf a decade or two earlier. That greater diversity, along with the PGA Tour's commitment to not stand in the way of its stars who want to compete in the Olympics, greatly increase the chances of success in Lausanne.

The last failed effort to get golf into the Olympics was for the 1996 competition at Atlanta. Golf was going to be added as a host-city prerogative but that effort collapsed when Augusta National Golf Club was suggested as the venue. The lack of female members at Augusta National and the almost complete absence of minorities triggered a rebellion joined by even American members of the IOC executive committee.

Another factor helping golf's chances to gain Olympic status is the embrace of the game by President Obama. Upon returning June 7 from his Mideast and European missions, the President went almost directly to the golf course. An avid athlete who played basketball to relax on the campaign trail, Obama is also a golfer and apparently finds comfort in the escape the game offers.

Obama, whose approval ratings outside the United States are even greater than it is within this country, could serve as one of the game's greatest promotional assets without saying a word. His acceptance of the position of honorary captain for this year's Presidents Cup was also an important embrace of the game

The IOC will vote in October on which sports to add to the 2016 Games and which city will host those Games. The finalists are Chicago, Tokyo, Madrid and Rio de Janeiro. And if golf does gain access perhaps a then-46-year-old Sorenstam will come back to compete -- with her seven-year-old daughter watching.

*-- Ron Sirak

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