Last weekend at the Players Championship, Dustin Johnson, currently the top-ranked golfer in the world, announced he wasn’t going to play in this summer’s Olympics in Tokyo. Quite simply, Johnson said, making the trip to the other side of the world to Japan two weeks after the Open Championship in England and a week before a WGC event in Memphis didn’t make sense for him.
And so, it begins … again. Johnson may be the first. He won’t be the last.
When golf was re-introduced into the Olympics five years ago in Rio de Janeiro, a number of the game’s top players opted out, most citing the Zika virus as the reason they didn’t want to make the trip to Brazil. In spite of intense pressure from both the PGA Tour and the European Tour, Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Adam Scott and Johnson—among others—decided not to play. Zika gave them an out, but in truth, no one was that eager to make the trip.
Scheduling was an issue then—the Olympics were two weeks after the Open Championship and two weeks before the PGA Championship—and, as Johnson said last week, scheduling is again an issue this year.
There’s also this: Many players simply don’t care that much about the Olympics.
There was a 112-year break from 1904 to 2016 for golf as an Olympic sport. That means that none of today’s players grew up dreaming of playing in the Olympics. When they were putting alone just before dusk as little boys and girls, none ever said, “This one to win an Olympic gold medal.” It was always the Masters, the U.S. Open or the Open Championship. Justin Thomas, as the son of a PGA Professional might have said, “This to win the PGA,” but he’d probably be the lone ranger.
Tennis was re-introduced to the Olympics in 1988 and it took some time before the top players decided to play. Tennis, though, is an easier get for the Olympics for a couple of reasons: There’s a long gap between Wimbledon in early July and the U.S. Open in late August that makes it easier to add an Olympics to the schedule once every four years. Golf’s schedule, even with the PGA Championship now in May, is much more compressed. Soon after Memphis come the big-money PGA Tour playoffs and players have GOT to get some rest at some point during the summer.
There are many (myself included) who don’t believe a sport should be part of the Olympics unless winning a gold medal represents the ultimate achievement in that sport. Track and field, swimming, gymnastics, wrestling, skiing, speed skating and figure skating all fit that bill—as do many other largely unnoticed sports. How break-dancing got into the Olympics, I have no idea, but that’s a different issue.
For golfers and tennis players, the majors are the top of the mountain. As much as I love basketball, I’m not sure it belongs either. Most American NBA players are dragged kicking and screaming by their agents to play because not playing can hurt their endorsement profile. Europeans—in both basketball and hockey—DO think of the Olympics as at least as important as an NBA title or a Stanley Cup.
Englishman Justin Rose (center) won gold, Sweden's Henrik Stenson took silver and American Matt Kuchar earned bronze in the 2016 Olympics.
Back to golf. The sport’s leadership wanted back in the Olympics for the same reason that tennis big-wigs wanted back in: Being in the Olympics as a sport leads to governments spending more on development programs in that sport. Tennis barely existed in Russia prior to 1988. Now, there are Russian men and women all over the world rankings. The same is true in China and Japan, and in smaller countries that have embraced tennis in order to add to their Olympic medal count.
Golf already had a tremendous international profile before it was voted back into the Olympics. But there is no doubt that the Olympics can be a boon to junior development programs around the world. In other words, the Olympics are about—surprise!—money to those who run golf.
The media is part of this too. When McIlroy officially announced at a pre-Open Championship press conference at Troon in 2016 that he was skipping the Olympics, one of the first questions was: “Don’t you feel you owe it to golf to go to the Olympics to try to promote your sport?”
Justifiably, McIlroy shook his head in disgust at the question. “That’s not my job,” he said. “My job is to play as well as I possibly can and behave in a way that promotes the sport while I’m winning championships.”
Television is also a part of this. One of the first people to criticize Johnson’s recent decision was Brandel Chamblee, arguably the sport’s most respected commentator. He tweeted that, “Anyone who finds time to play in Saudi Arabia for an appearance fee should find time to play in the Olympics for his country.”
It’s a noble thought and, not surprisingly, makes a strong case against Johnson. I also happen to think appearance fees are a pox—both in golf and tennis. But Johnson’s trip to Saudi Arabia—and many players’ trips to the Middle East for big bucks—comes early in the year, well before the first major, the Masters. The Olympics come smack in the middle of the most difficult time of the year for players in terms of schedule and, in case you were wondering, the International Olympic Committee isn’t going to change future schedules to accommodate golf.
Chamblee, it should be noted, works for Golf Channel/NBC. Guess who televises Olympic golf? During that same Troon press conference, McIlroy was asked if he would watch the Olympics on television. “I’ll probably watch the sports that matter, like swimming and track and field,” he answered.
As soon as McIlroy was finished, on orders from his bosses, Chamblee attacked McIlroy saying, “When Rory McIlroy retires someday, I think he’ll regret that press conference more than anything in his career.”
Chamblee is a friend and a former colleague. I texted him right away and said, “Do you honestly think he’ll regret that press conference more than blowing a four-shot Sunday lead at the Masters?”
Brandel’s answer was instantaneous: “Touche.”
Johnson may be among the first stars to announce he isn’t going to Tokyo (Webb Simpson essentially said the same too during a pre-tournament press conference at TPC Sawgrass), but he surely won’t be the last. The schedule’s a problem. So is the fact that the Olympics just aren’t that big a deal to golfers. That may change in the future. The next Olympics are in Paris in 2024 and many players will be at Troon shortly before that for the Open Championship. The 2028 Olympics are in Los Angeles, meaning most players won’t have to travel internationally to get there since the tour will be back in the U.S. by then.
As with tennis, Olympic golf will increase in importance as more young players grow up with the Olympics as part of their sport. Someday, young golfers might even say, “this for an Olympic gold medal,” as they putt alone in the gloaming.
But not yet. And, when more players decide as this year goes on to skip Tokyo and the travel through 12 time zones to get back from there to play in the Memphis WGC event, they shouldn’t be criticized. Golf in the Olympics just isn’t that big a deal to most golfers … yet.