The Olympics, for all the faults, including overblown self-importance and corruption, are a global phenomenon like few others and now that golf is in, it has to up its game and work damned hard to stay in. Rugby sevens was brilliant, with Fiji fantastic, who wouldn’t want to play; golf was ok. It was saved by the passion of the South Koreans for its women; the excellence of the indomitable Inbee Park, who defied injury and huge criticism at home not only to compete but also to stride away with the gold medal; and the proper battle between Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson for top of the podium. Those coming second and third beamed from ear to ear. That’s special.Maureen thought amateurs should take centre stage but that’s not an option these days; the Olympics are a professional environment, with the successful athletes well funded and putting hours of work in every day, all proper jobs, if any, on hold. Jessica Ennis-Hill, Katie Ledecky, Laura Trott, Usain Bolt, Mo Farah, Michael Phelps et al are not amateurs. They might all become golfers though and that is one of the game’s strengths. It’s addictive. It’s alluring. It attracts athletes and competitive animals as well as us abysmals.
The Japanese are mad about golf and will turn out in droves to watch in 202o but please, please do something about the format. (We won’t mention the dire commentary large parts of the TV watching world were lumbered with. See Twitter for details.) Perhaps the IOC wanted golf to play it safe in Rio but in Tokyo there must be a team format and it must be mixed. Don’t give us a load of blah-flum about ‘growing the game’ and keep the men and women apart, playing individual stroke play. I sat cheering at handball, rugby sevens, even water polo because it was team stuff, nation against nation and golf, a sedate spectacle mostly, needs that extra element to spice it up.
There are plenty of formats to draw from: World Amateur team championships, European team championships, Dunhill Cups: stroke play with two or three scores to count; stroke play leading to match play; medal match play. Women and men in the same team, playing at the same time, perhaps even in mixed groups, shock, horror. They all, the women especially, have four years to learn how to play quicker. Perhaps we could have a shot clock or, my favoured method, a set time for a round, say, four hours. The stopwatch is clicked when the first member of a group is called forward and clicked again when the last member of the group putts out. For every minute or part thereof over the time, every player in a group is penalised a shot. If they’re under the time, they can donate something to a designated charity or, for Olympic purposes, subtract a shot from their total. Referees could tear up their ridiculous, useless timing sheets and concentrate on monitoring the punch-ups as the speedsters were agitated beyond endurance by the snails.
When it comes down to it, golf is a game for everybody and that’s what we’ve got to get across. The Olympics, by their very nature, take golfers out of their comfort zone, so go further, mix it up, literally, show the world that it’s competitive, fun and inclusive. Isn’t that the whole idea of being part of the five-ring circus?
If the golf in Tokyo is still 72-hole individual stroke play, with the men playing one week and the women the next (what happened to ladies first anyway!), it’ll be a travesty and we’ll have to put on the hard hats again and keep banging against that brick wall……In the meantime, congrats to Maria Verchenova, one of the few Russians competing in Rio, who not only won the hat-wearing gold but had a round of 62, to show that she could play decent golf as well. And congrats to Leona Maguire, who did herself and Ireland (and Duke University) proud in Rio and received the 2016 Mark H McCormack Medal (awarded to the No 1 player in the World Amateur Golf Ranking) from Lydia Ko (No 1 in the Rolex Rankings, the women’s world rankings). Maguire also won the women’s McCormack Medal in 2015. And, far away from Brazil, at the Pete Dye Course at French Lick Resort in Indiana, England and Arsenal Solheim Cup stalwart Trish Johnson got the better of Juli Inkster at last, winning The Legends Championship (presented by Old National Bank) at the 6th hole of a not-so-sudden-death play-off. Even a Spurs supporter like me could not forbear to cheer.
Well that was a relief, then, wasn’t it?
“What?” I hear you cry.
“That Olympic golf went so well, of course,” is the answer.
Let me nail my colours to the mast here – I would not have had golf in the Olympics. There’s something that doesn’t quite sit with me when there is a sport in the Olympics whose inclusion isn’t the absolute pinnacle of that sport. I think I’d have had the amateurs playing, not the pros.
In 2008 Andy Murray travelled directly from the US Open tennis to Beijing with no preparation and scant interest. How things have changed in the intervening dozen years. Perhaps the same will happen with golf – or to be more precise with men’s golf. Women’s golf is in a much more parlous state than the men’s game and the female players were astute enough to realise that the Olympic platform was ideal for them to showcase their skills. So they embraced the whole experience with virtually all the eligible top players in the world adding Rio to their schedules.
And our podium winners were heaven sent. The women’s gold medal was won by former world No 1 Inbee Park of South Korea, that powerhouse of women’s golf; the silver by current world No 1, New Zealand’s Lydia Ko; and the bronze by trailblazer Shanshan Feng of China, a country arguably poised to embrace the sport like no other nation. The men had their own thrilling finale with England’s Justin Rose edging Sweden’s Open Champion Henrik Stenson and America’s Matt Kuchar scooping bronze and proclaiming, “I’ve never been congratulated so much on a third place finish.”
Passionate as I am about golf, even I found the selected format of 72-hole strokeplay unutterably boring, providing interest only in the last nine holes of the final day. Forget cries of this format providing the best winner – that’s not necessarily true and it is hardly likely to capture the public’s imagination in the way other much more gladiatorial sports do. So, for what it’s worth here’s my humble offering on the format for Tokyo in 2020:-
- 32 countries each with six members, three men, three women
- 8 groups with 4 countries in each
- each country plays the other three in their group
- each match consists of 1 male singles game, 1 female singles, 1 mixed foursomes and 1 mixed fourball
- the winners of each group become the quarter finalists, seeding determining who plays whom
- straight knockout to determine the medallists
Of course there are lots of details to work out, not least the method of qualification for the countries and the difficulty of having a fourball format in amongst singles and foursomes matches. But surely it’s not beyond the brainpower of the powers-that-be to work that out? And we’d get to see our own nations competing against at least three other countries – much more compelling viewing than the turgid 72-hole format.
Also, who knows, perhaps the PGA Tour will decide not to schedule a regular tour event at the same time and instead show true commitment to the Olympic cause?