Two sports made their Olympic debut in Rio. The first, a particularly exciting variation of rugby called rugby sevens, enjoyed a spectacular run. Fiji won its first gold ever, beating Great Britain in what was an amazing run through the tournament. The second, golf, has been a mess.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The International Olympic Committee saw golf making a triumphant return after 116 years to become a tentpole event like basketball and tennis, two sports with globally recognized athletes and worldwide audiences. But bad timing and bad luck drove that shot right into the rough.
Adding golf to the roster seemed like a no-brainer when the IOC did just that in October, 2009. The sport was immensely popular, with more people playing more rounds each year since 2003. Tiger Woods was the dominant player, a renowned athlete, and a powerhouse brand. Major tournaments drew huge crowds. The IOC saw golf drawing an array of marquee competitors, who in turn would draw huge audiences.
But then Woods’ personal life imploded, his appearances at tournaments declined, and public interest in the game waned. Turns out many of those people didn’t tune in to watch golf, they tuned in to watch Woods. His fall coincided with the game’s peak, which has seen declining participation in the US, the UK and Japan, ad even Australia and Ireland. Things are so bad that Adidas and Nike are abandoning the game.
Golf didn’t land in the bunker overnight. But once the shot sliced, it was too late for the Olympics to do much about it. Still, the golf at the Games might have endured the sport’s declining popularity. It probably could have shaken off the iron-fisted way the IOC forced Rio to build a new course, even though the city already had two. But its fate was all but sealed when top players decided to skip the Olympics. Some expressed concern about zika. Some worried about the crazy schedule of tournaments this summer. And some expressed ambivalence about the Olympics. Unlike, say, swimmers or gymnasts, golfers don’t grow up dreaming of Olympic glory.
All told, 16 of the top 100 male players in the world stayed home, including Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Adam Scott, and Graeme McDowell. Rory McIlroy not only withdrew, he suggested he would “focus on stuff that matters” rather than watch the tournament. Some of those who did show up seemed a bit clueless. Matt Kuchar of the US squad didn’t realize he’d be competing in an individual event instead of on a team, as is customary in a tournament like the Ryder Cup.
To be fair, the LPGA embraced the games early, and far fewer women stayed home. The top nine players in the world are in Rio, despite the fact the women’s professional tour is even busier than the men’s this summer. So far, the competition has been tight. But women’s golf, like women’s basketball, lacks the star power of men’s golf (teenage phenom Lydia Ko notwithstanding), and doesn’t draw nearly as big an audience. In fact, some are counting on the Olympics broaden the appeal of women’s golf.
Golf’s rocky start mirrors that of tennis, which returned to the Games in 1988. Eight of the world’s top 10 male players skipped the first tourney; just one of the top 20 women stayed home. Granted, many of the no-shows were sidelined by injuries or tournament rules, but it suggests that golf may rebound.
At the time, the Olympics were an afterthought for tennis players. No one dreamed of winning gold, they dreamed of winning one of the four major tournaments. Today, players see the Olympics as a fifth major, an event to aspire to. Winning an gold in London four years ago invigorated Andy Murray’s career, and even Venus and Serena Williams continue competing in olympiads. Olympic tennis is successful, exciting, and popular.
The same may yet happen to golf. You saw glimpses of it on the first day, when Britain’s Justin Rose sunk a hole-in-one on the fourth hole. Rose eventually won the gold medal in a final round decided with the final putt. And the television ratings weren’t bad, with the gold medal round second only to the final round of the Masters.
But the sport has not been the hole in one the International Olympic Committee expected. Perhaps it will shoot par at the 2020 Games in Tokyo.