Raise your driver if you know who George Lyon is. Most players have no ideas that he was the last Olympic gold medal winner in golf. Lyon, a 46-year old Canadian, finished ninth in a 74-man field to qualify for the 32-man match play competition with a two-round total of 169 at the Glen Echo Golf Club. He upset medalist Stuart Stickney in the 16th round, and won three more matches against higher-ranked players to capture the gold. That was in the 1904 St. Louis Olympics.
Lyon is actually the only gold medal winner. Golf was an Olympic event in 1900 in Paris but the competition was so haphazard that winners Charles Sands and Margaret Abbott just received flatware. Abbott in fact, whose mother Mary was also in the event (the only time a mother and daughter competed in the same Olympic event), thought she was just playing in a regular tournament and went to her grave never knowing she was the first American woman to win an Olympic event.
But that is a story for another time, because two more players are about to join that select list. Golf is back in the 2016 Olympics.
Dog Bites Man Story
If you were not aware that golf is once again an Olympic sport, Adam Scott may have clued you in this week when he weighed in on the importance of the medal chase in Rio De Janeiro next year with the simple statement, “I’m not definitely ruling it out but certainly I’m not planning my schedule around playing the Olympics.”
Somehow this obvious fact that the Australian star considers Olympic golf competition “an exhibition” splashed across golf headlines. Did anyone really think that professional golfers were casting a hungrier eye towards Olympic gold in 2016 than the United States Open and the Open Championship? Or any tournament with a seven-figure winner’s check for that matter?
Speaking Truth to Power
Maybe it was Scott’s willingness to put such candid words on record that caught the media by surprise. “It’s nothing I’ve ever aspired to do and I don’t think I ever will. It’s all about the four majors and I think that’s the way it should stay for golf,” the Titleist spokesman continued, unleashed. “I don’t believe a lot of sports belong there (the Olympics). It’s gotten away from where it started.”
This is certainly not music to the ears of the International Golf Federation (IGF), the governing body that is responsible for promoting worldwide golf participation and organizer of the Olympic competition. After years of lobbying to get back in the Olympics, part of their convincing argument in 2009 was that the game’s champs Tiger Woods and Annika Sorenstam would commit to Olympic golf. With Sorenstam retired and Woods less-than-stellar form, the IGF cannot afford the defection of today’s stars.
However, we understand where Scott is coming from. Perhaps the only sports that belong in the Olympics are the ones where Olympic gold is the pinnacle of achievement in that sport. That would mean no basketball, no soccer, no tennis and, especially, no golf—all of which can find their own version of Olympic gold in the tournaments and series dedicated specifically to that sport.
Not only does golf have four majors, World Golf Championships, and a Tour Championship that all dim the glory of Olympic gold, but there is international competition every year in either the Ryder Cup or the Presidents Cup. Golf has even had a World Cup since 1953 that features Olympic-style two-man teams playing for their homeland (Scott and partner Jason Day won in 2013).
What about the Olympic Experience?
Despite all that, shouldn’t professional golfers be able to enjoy the Olympic experience like other athletes? Sure, no elite athlete given the chance to be an Olympian should be denied that once-in-a-lifetime thrill. And maybe there will be multi-millionaire golfers who relish the opportunity to swap stories with Eastern European gymnasts and swimmers. But the guess is the experience will be more like Andre Agassi at the 1996 Olympics. The tennis champion did not march in the Opening Ceremonies, attended no events, did not stay in the Olympic Village, and never went downtown. But he won the gold medal.
Perhaps the 2016 Olympics will achieve its objective and stir interest in golf participation around the globe. An argument is that maybe it would have been better for the IGF to follow boxing’s example and restrict the competition to talented amateurs for whom Olympic gold would really mean something. After all, sometimes the appeal of the Olympics is discovering unknown athletes we only hear about every four years, and perhaps making stars of them. Not watching already famous athletes going through the motions.
However, as we experienced after the United States dismantled their ‘Dream Teams’ in basketball, interest greatly faded. So what’s the answer? Pardon the continued basketball theme, but there’s simply no ‘slam dunk’ solution. If all of the Tour pros decide to participate, at least you would have viewership. If only a portion play while other’s bow out? That feels like a mess and somehow the worst of the options. Whichever way it turns out, we just have the sneaking feeling it will be underwhelming. But for the sake of the game, let’s hope not…