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Golf Goes for Gold

The sport returns to the Olympics for the first time in more than a century

The 1904 Olympic games were pretty lame. They were held in St. Louis in conjunction with the World’s Fair, and Americans dominated the medal count—winning more golds than all the other nations combined—because hardly anyone else else was even there. Of the 651 athletes at the Games, 526 were American, and less than half the events included a single non-American competitor

Three of the sports played that sad summer in St. Louis never saw the light of the Olympic torch again. There was tug-of-war, valiantly fought between the Milwaukee and New York Athletic Clubs in the finals; a faddish American version of croquet called roque, dubbed “The Game of the Century” by its fans; and, of course, golf.

In the 112 years since, golf has grown into an (estimated) $70 billion global industry, inspired a soft drink and provided valuable foreign policy experience to highly qualified American presidential candidates. And later this week in Rio, golf will finally, once again, become an Olympic sport.

But what took it so long? And if it got by without the Olympics for over a century, why bring it back now?

To make sense of golf’s long Olympic lacuna, we got in touch with Ty Votaw, the man who led the push to get golf back in the Games. He’s a lifelong golf guy, having served as general counsel and then commissioner to the LPGA for years before joining the PGA Tour as chief marketing officer and serving with the International Golf Federation (the organization responsible for golf at the Olympics) as vice president. Votaw coordinated the IGF’s initial bid, in 2008, to bring golf back to the Olympics, and has overseen the process of reintroducing the sport to the Games ever since.

Why did it take 112 years for golf to get back into the Olympics?
Well, that’s a complicated question. In 1908 [in London], there was a dispute about who would participate in the Olympic Games, and the R&A [The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of Saint Andrews, the U.K.’s governing golf body] didn’t send anyone from the U.K. So it just kind of died.

And golf itself was evolving all through the ‘20s up through the ‘50s — the Olympics were still primarily amateur then, and golf was heading in the opposite direction, with the professional game getting more and more traction with each decade.

So it didn’t seem to fit until recently, when the IOC recognized that, in other sports like tennis and basketball and hockey, the Olympic teams needed to include the best players from around the world [i.e., professionals] if they wanted to have meaningful competition in those sports.

Pros have been playing in the Olympics since the ‘80s, though — what took golf so long?
There was an effort to get golf in the Olympics in Atlanta in ‘96, with the games held at Augusta National, but there were some politics that intervened with that, because of the membership policies of Augusta National at the time [Editor’s note: The golf club refused to grant membership to people of color until 1990 and to women until 2012]. So while there was an announcement made that golf would be in, they ultimately had to pull back.

Golf also tried to get in in 2001 for the 2008 Beijing games, but it actually finished last among the several sports competing for a spot. There was an uncertainty as to whether the top players would play.

What made the bid for Rio successful, then?
In 2008 and 2009, we were fortunate to have players like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, and Annika Sörenstam and Lorena Ochoa, top players from both men’s and women’s golf, all create testimonials saying that golf in the Olympics would be a good thing. Michelle Wie made a presentation; Suzann Pettersen and Matteo Manassero were also in the big presentation. They were all instrumental.

In the last couple of months, though, a lot of top players, like Rory McIlroy and Jason Day, have backed out of the games, citing fears of Zika virus infection, and a lot of the other players you mention have slipped out of the top ranks. Is that a big problem for Olympic golf’s future?
In 2009, we didn’t know who the top players would be in 2016, but Pádraig Harrington is playing in these Olympics, and Suzann and Matteo, and they were instrumental in making the big presentation in Copenhagen to the IOC.

When tennis came into the Olympics in 1988, it had its fits and starts in terms of top players playing — some significant men didn’t play in the first Games. But Steffi Graf won a golden slam in 1988, winning all four major championships and a gold medal that year, and it’s grown over time. Serena Williams has said that if her house is burning down the only thing she would run in to get would be her Olympic gold medal. That development that’s taken place in tennis is something we think we can build on in golf.

Why did the IGF and the other golf organizations around the world even want to get golf in the Olympics?
We felt that, if golf were to be fortunate enough to get into the Olympic Games, it would serve as a catalyst and engine for growth for our sport around the world. In many countries, support for a sport is contingent on whether that sport is an Olympic sport — national federations for golf around the world told us that getting the support of national Olympic committees in those countries would help it grow. That was the genesis and driver of the bid process.

It may not necessarily grow golf in the United States and the U.K., as fully developed countries for golf, as much as it will in India or China or Brazil, or smaller countries.

So is that about building up the player base, or growing the number of people who like watching golf?
No, it’s about growing the fanbase as well. There are going to be 34 countries in men and 34 countries in the women: 41 countries overall. That demonstrates that golf is a global sport. We think that if we can develop Olympic heroes in some of those countries, the fans will follow.

Is there a model for that kind of expansion through the Games?
The most analogous would probably be tennis, again — in 1988, only 20-plus countries entered Wimbledon, but now that tennis has been an Olympic sport for the last 30 years, or close to it, there are now 40 countries represented at Wimbledon.

Is golf a part of the Olympics for good now, or could it drop back out?
We’re good through 2020 — there’s going to be a vote next year on whether or not golf continues to stay in.

Does that add some pressure to the Rio games?
Well, we want to put on the best Olympic competition we can in golf this year, so that when the vote comes around there’s good feelings about it. And we think we will.

Is Tokyo in 2020 going to be easier going, though?
Japan is certainly more of a golf-playing nation than Brazil is, and we don’t have to build a golf course in Tokyo like we had to do in Rio. And there’s a much more knowledgable, enthusiastic audience for golf there, which are all things that will help us put on a really good Olympic games in Tokyo.

That’s not to say we’re not going to do, you know, a good Olympic Games golf competition in Rio. I think we will. It’ll just be different.