13 Aug 2021 | Professional golf |

Olympics: a reflection on golf in the Games

by Martin Blake

Hannah Green Tokyo image
The Olympic Games is embracing golf, and the sport looks to belong. Photo: Getty

Here’s a thought about Olympic golf.

For some reason, it does people’s heads in, but it need not. For every golf nerd who thinks it a disgrace that golf is even remotely interested in joining the great sporting festival there are as many who believe that it’s great.

Then there are the format objectors who want matchplay, or a mixed event, or a teams competition.

Adam Scott disliked the four-rounds strokeplay format for the Games so much he declined to make himself available for Tokyo. But you don’t hear any complaints from the top women who trip over each other to get there.

Fortunately, the two Australian men this year, Marc Leishman and Cam Smith, were both red hot keen and at the time of the tournament, our top two ranked male players. Ditto for Minjee Lee and Hannah Green who were desperate to be there.

We got the best players to Tokyo and – in the case of Smith and Green – they played close to their best.

The format is an open discussion, but it’s worth putting in some perspective here. Golf had to jump through quite a few hoops to get back into the Olympics after 100-odd years, making its reappearance in Rio De Janeiro in 2016.

For it to be worth the effort, Antony Scanlon, the Australian head of the Switzerland-based International Golf Federation which has responsibility for Olympic golf, wanted it spread out rather than a quick fix.

Scanlon was a key man in the running of the Sydney Olympics and more recently a big wheel at the International Olympic Committee.

As it stands, he has what he wants: eight full days of golf with two separate tournaments standing out from each other. Uncluttered events not intertwined and being four rounds of strokeplay, simply understood by the non-golf person who might be watching.

There are millions of those people around the world. The ratings for the women’s event at the Olympics are the highest of the year, for instance.

Scanlon does not want to give that away by mixing the women in amongst the men’s tournament. He wants them to stand alone.

I can see his point.

That’s not to say it’s all quite right. KJ Choi, who was captain of South Korea in Tokyo, made a push at a private level for more medals to be given out. Quite understandably, he thinks it wrong that only the top three players medal when in other events at the Games, players who tie would each get some reward.

Remember that in the men’s event in Tokyo, seven players tied third and had to go to a crazy playoff in two groups. They included Rory McIlroy, a former world No. 1 who said later he’d never tried so hard to finish third in a tournament.

I’m not sure they have this correct. Perhaps you find a different way to split players who are tied for second and third, such as rewarding the lowest final-round score, or the most birdies made? Something simple for the non-golfer watching, but not a crowded playoff.

The tournament screams out for a team element, too. Because when Marc Leishman began his final round in Tokyo outside the top 40 and with no chance of getting into the top three who would win a medal, he would at least have something tangible to play for if he had been teamed up with Cameron Smith for a combined-score medal.

Of course there’s a catch with that notion of teams, because some nations qualify up to four players (Korea and the USA for example, in Tokyo). In that instance, I am guessing you would have to nominate pairs from those countries. What about nations who only have one player, you say? Well they would not be eligible for team golf.

As it happens, Scanlon has already picked up on the need for a teams aspect. He wants the Olympic golf to have a gold medal for combined two-player score. Once again, it’s simple and it would add something. It’s certainly on the table, if not for Paris in three years, then beyond that.

The IGF has moved cautiously and thoughtfully on golf in the Olympics, too conservatively for some people. But it is on a winner. Golf belongs in the biggest sports festival in the world. Rio and Tokyo have shown us that.

As for the Australians, they all enjoyed a fun week and were unlucky – in the cases of Smith and Hannah Green – to miss out on a medal.

Shoehorned into a little team room at their hotel in suburban Kawagoe the banter ran thick and fast for a fortnight, with the acerbic Smith, king of the pisstake, leading the way. Smith, Leishman and their caddies goaded captain Ian Baker-Finch and offered up words for him to use in his television commentary as a reminder of the week. Conundrum was one. Others were not so repeatable.

Baker-Finch, who lives in Florida and who hasn’t managed to get home to Australia for two years because of border restrictions, commented that the Australianness of his surrounds had made his fortnight. No one escaped … Leishman donned long sports socks and an athlete’s coat to mimic a television presenter (as seen on his Instagram account).

‘Finchy’ was terrific as captain, wisely not interfering with the players’ games and acknowledging that his role is not like you would see with a captain at, say, a Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup. The next captain for Paris, likely to be Karrie Webb, has big shoes to fill.

At one point, the middle Sunday, all four of the Australian players came together at the same time and this was a point of pride for Brad James, Golf Australia’s head of high performance. All of them came through elite amateur programs (Green and Minjee Lee through Golf WA programs, Leishman through the VIS and Smith through the QAS).

Yet the fact they hardly knew each other beforehand is testament to the almost complete separation of the women’s and men’s games at the professional level. For James, those moments over dinner and a few laughs in the team room symbolised what golf is trying to do in this country.

It’s about coming together.

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