Jon Rahm says he wants to play. He even calls representing Spain during the Olympics this summer in Tokyo an “absolute dream” of his, an endeavor he considers a pinnacle of athletic achievement.
“I’ve been able to win championships representing Spain as an amateur in almost every level, and to bring back the gold medal would be something amazing,” Rahm said prior to the AT&T Byron Nelson.
But as is the case with many of his peers on the PGA Tour, Rahm’s level of desire is matched – or maybe even overwhelmed – by the pure inconvenience of it all. Practice rounds would require athletes to stay in the Olympic Village, which is 30 miles away from Kasumigaseki Country Club and requires well over an hour in the car, before golfers would get to stay closer during tournament play. That’s a part of the reportedly strict COVID-19 protocol, which also includes not being able to bring your family.
On top of it all is what will surely be the most commonly cited excuse: there are a lot of other important golf tournaments, each offering large paychecks, on the schedule before and after the Olympics, which pays out no more than a modest medal bonus. For context, a 2018 American gold medalist at the Winter Games earned $37,500.
The Open Championship ends July 18, five days before the opening ceremony in Tokyo. Although the 3M Open is the week before the competition and is an event that normally wouldn’t get a strong field, the no-cut WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational is immediately after the Olympics and features a $10.5 million purse. Two weeks later, the FedEx Cup playoffs start at The Northern Trust and the world’s best will be asked to play three consecutive weeks.
“I can understand why a lot of people are prioritizing the FedEx Cup events and great golf events,” Rahm said. “The Olympics are relatively new for golf and I don’t blame them. … I want to play. They are not making it very easy.”
The reality is that the men may care about the Olympics to a certain degree, but many of them care about controlling their schedules a little bit more.
We are only a handful of years into golf’s Olympic return and, at least at this point, the best male golfers in the world have offered far more excuses than unabashed passion.
There were 21 players in a qualifying position who decided against traveling to Brazil in 2016, nearly all of them blaming the Zika virus. The competition itself brought optimism that the next iteration would be different, and there’s still a chance it could be. At the very least, it will probably be a slightly better field than the one in 2016. However, with world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, a possible Australian qualifier in Adam Scott and the forever-young Lee Westwood among those having already bailed, the excitement is tempered. There have only been a few players like Justin Thomas who previously said “there’s no scenario for me to skip” and more like Brooks Koepka who has said “the four majors are definitely more important for me.”
The reality is that the men may care about the Olympics to a certain degree, but many of them care about controlling their schedules a little bit more. They all grew up pretending “this putt is to win the Masters” and not “this putt is to win a gold medal at the Olympics.” For the latter to happen, it may take several editions with more and more top players committing slowly over time. Thomas, Rory McIlroy and Xander Schauffele gave positive responses during the PGA Championship indicating they would play, a sign of encouragement.. Thomas’ enthusiasm is far and away the most among the world’s best players, something that could be meaningful in the years to come.
“I can’t imagine what the rush and what the feeling would be of winning a gold medal,” Thomas said at Kiawah. “It’s just something growing up… It was something you couldn’t dream because it wasn’t a thing. Now that it is, it’s an unbelievable opportunity, and I think I’ve made it pretty known my stance on playing for the U.S. and representing my country.”
Peer pressure is real on the PGA Tour, so maybe more of that type of language could be powerful.
Not much can be done about the schedule woes that have pushed away other players, but this writer would like to see the top 12 countries bring their best five players and go at it in a college style event where the top four scores are counted each day. After 54 holes of stroke play where there are individual medal winners, the top four teams could play match play. At least that style of play would tug on the heart strings of those who bleed both the colors of their former school and country. And how fired up would a team of five Australians or five Canadians be to try and knock off five Americans? It wouldn’t be the Ryder Cup, but it would provide more drama than 72 holes of stroke play.
No matter what the format, the Olympics is mired in uncertainty and ambivalence for the men.
The other side couldn’t be much different. Only six of the qualifying women missed the 2016 competition in Rio, and none of them were in the top 100 in the world at the time. The LPGA Tour schedule doesn’t set up a whole lot differently from the men, as the Aug. 4-7 Olympic competition is surrounded by the Evian Championship in France (July 22-25), the ISPS Handa World Invitational in Northern Ireland (July 29-Aug. 1) and the Women’s Scottish Open (Aug. 12-15). That’s not to mention the Solheim Cup will be played back in the U.S. at Inverness less than a month after the Olympics.
Despite that, the women unanimously view the Olympics as one of the top spotlight events on their calendar. It would be a stunner to see any of the top players remove their names from consideration.
“All I want to do is to get warmed up for the Olympics.” – Shanshan Feng
Qualifying for the Olympics ends in five weeks, and the race to see who will reach Tokyo has turned into the women’s version of the constant Ryder Cup discussions that swirl around the men’s game many months before the match. For both the men and women, the top 15 players in the world are eligible up to a maximum of four golfers per country – after the top 15, each field is filled up to 60 with the two top ranked players qualifying from any country without two or more players from the top 15.
That means that when there are six Americans in the top 17, as is currently the case, not all of them will be able to get there. The race to represent South Korea is even wilder given that eight of the top 20 players in the world are Korean. So Yeon Ryu, Austin Ernst, Jennifer Kupcho and Jeong Eun Lee are all outside of the bubble for their respective teams.
It’s fair to say the women have a deeper appreciation of what it would mean to get to Tokyo and play well. Final round coverage for the 2016 Olympic women’s golf tournament delivered 691,000 viewers, the largest cable audience of the year for women’s golf. When viewership spiked to 924,000 near the exciting conclusion, it was the most-watched quarter-hour of any women’s golf telecast on cable since the 2010 Women’s British Open. Those numbers are expected to grow this year given the event’s location in a women’s golf-crazed part of the world.
On the list of important women’s golf tournaments, it’s securely in the top 5. Some could argue that it is only behind the U.S. Women’s Open and Solheim Cup. The International Crown, a biennial event that pits the top eight countries in women’s golf against each other, was cancelled for 2020 and doesn’t have a new date, only adding to the Olympics’ importance.
Shanshan Feng told reporters recently that, “All I want to do is to get warmed up for the Olympics” as she plotted her schedule to try and peak for early August. Lexi Thompson called making the U.S. team her “No. 1 goal” for the year. In Gee Chun spoke of the intensity of the event by saying, “It’s always really an honor to play with the national flag on. At the same time it’s a lot of pressure, but I really enjoy the pressure.”
Their outgoing commissioner Mike Whan has led the way for all of it.
“When I look at the Olympics, I see one of the greatest sporting events in the world because it attracts the best players at the prime of their career to all come together and play a really cool hometown place that they let the rest of the world watch,” Whan said.
For the moment, that’s where Olympic golf stands. The men’s side looks more like a long-term project to reach the point where the significance of the event outweighs the inconvenience of it. The women’s side is more unbridled passion and gratitude for the platform.
© 2021 Global Golf Post LLC
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