Olympic Golf: Out With Old, In With New

Much as The Masters has a different vibe than any other golf tournament, anyone who has attended an Olympic Games will tell you that the five-ring circus is a different sporting bird. The buzz that attends sports otherwise ignored by all but friends and family the other 206 weeks of any four-year period is palpable.
Let’s face it. You wouldn’t recognize Ryan Lochte if he crossed the street in front of you, but throw him in the pool with the Olympic flame burning and, oh yeah, he’s the guy who isn’t Michael Phelps.
In 2016 – after years of the sport’s bigwigs twisting the arms of the International Olympic Committee – golf will show up in Rio de Janeiro with an Olympics passport and, assuming the red tape is cut and ground is broken, a course to play a tournament on.
Fine. It’ll be the first Olympic golf since 1904 (Canada’s George Lyon would be the defending champion were he still with us). Much like the inclusion of pro basketball and hockey players in the Games, it has the opportunity to elevate the sport in countries where it is hardly played, or only a rumor. But what format to play?
For the moment, it appears the tournaments – men and women, likely on separate weekends – will use the same old 72-hole tournament setup used almost every week on every world tour.
Really? A chance to innovate, and golf falls back on the same old, same old?
Big mistake. For one thing, with every other sport under the rainbow going on, the golf tournaments will be lost in the shuffle except for the finish on Sunday. Sure, NBC will show the whole thing on Golf Channel and American golf nuts will watch, but what about the rest of the world? What’s needed for golf to shoehorn at least a few highlights into the coverage in Russia, China and India are fireworks.
Over the weekend, the perfect fireworks display was conducted, as it has been since 1899, by the Western Golf Association. The Western Amateur, held this year at Exmoor Country Club in Illinois, happens to provide the perfect format for Olympic golf. There are four rounds of stroke play followed by four rounds of match play, all of it conducted across five rollicking days.
Use the Western Amateur format, and here’s what you get:
1) A cut to the low 44 and ties after the second round. (With only 60 players in each Olympic tournament, a few big names will be fighting to continue at the end of the second day.)
2) A 36-hole double-round on the third day, followed by…
3) Another cut when the match play field – the Sweet Sixteen, in WGA parlance – is set. And there’s usually a bonus in a playoff for the last spot or two. Imagine Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods and Adam Scott in a three-for-two spots sudden-death playoff at the end of a 36-hole day. Say McIlroy gets in with a birdie on the first playoff hole. Now it’s Woods vs. Scott for the last slot in the Sweet Sixteen. Pure drama.
Then four rounds of match play across two days. Guaranteed drama as matches come to their conclusion, some going extra holes.
Who wouldn’t want to keep up with that? It may not be a gymnastics final with pixies flying through the air, or the 400-meter track relay, but it’s as good as it gets for generating “watch this” moments in the course of a golf tournament.
The women’s tournament would use the same format. How about Yani Tseng, Republic of China, vs. Shanshan Feng, People’s Republic of China, in the championship? Or Lorena Ochoa coming out of retirement to play, and facing off against Paula Creamer along the way?
It’s certainly worked in the Western Amateur. In all the decades the Western Am was held at Point O’Woods, the fine Robert Trent Jones layout near Benton Harbor, Mich., the most exciting match might have been the 1994 quarterfinal match between Tiger Woods and Chris Tidland.
Woods was sailing along, 4-up with six holes to play, when Tidland, an Oklahoma State standout, turned it on. He birdied the last six holes in regulation play – chipping in from 60 feet on the 18th – to square the match and force extra holes. Woods made two birdies in those six, or he would have been mowed down.
Woods struggled on the first playoff hole, lucky to have his second shot hit someone and stay in play, but he sank a 40-foot par putt to force a second hole. Tidland birdied the par-5 second, but Woods ran down a curling, downhill 20-footer for an eagle to win the match. Tidland was 7 under on his last eight holes and lost. Woods went on to win the title, but was knocked out before the finals the next two years.
That’s the unpredictable excitement of match play. That’s what sports are supposed to be about. That’s what golf in the Olympics should be about.


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