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Is Olympic Golf a Big Deal? It's All in Eye of the Beholder

Golf still feels like an odd fit for the Olympics, but the event does have a few powerful things going for it that can't be replicated anywhere else.
Tokyo Olympics

The men's golf competition begins Thursday in Tokyo.

Golf is the Ron Burgundy of the Olympics. It’s kind of a big deal… in its own mind.

On the other hand, Matt Kuchar has an Olympic bronze medal and you don’t.

You’ll have to decide for yourself whether Olympic golf really is noteworthy or just another watered-down, made-for-TV event purporting to be of vital importance.

Olympic golf has two things going for it. One is its scarcity. The Summer Olympics only come around once every four years—OK, nitpickers, five years this time but that extra year is on Mr. Pandemic. Second? The medals. The gold-silver-bronze awards are globally recognized icons. It doesn’t matter who you beat or how you beat them if you’ve got a medal stashed at home. You’ve accomplished something that Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and everyone else in the Hall of Fame didn’t (because they never had the chance). See Kuchar, Matt, of all people, for details.

What undercuts Olympic golf is the lack of field depth. Only 60 players are in the field. Even the World Golf Championship stroke-play events tee up with 70-odd players and no one thinks they’re the gold standard by which other fields are measured.

So after five years since the last Olympics, this week is the chance you’ve been waiting for to watch Maximillian Kieffer, Gunn Charoenkul, Ondrej Lieser and Ashun Wu.

Yes, they’re all golfers of the Olympian variety. Due to the Affirmative Action-type field requirements limiting most countries from sending more than two competitors, the Olympic golf field is a little bottom-heavy. Half of the field is outside the world ranking’s top 100. A dozen are outside the top 200.

That leaves a nice little exhibition for 30 players but darn it, World No. 2 Dustin Johnson opted out of playing, and No. 1 Jon Rahm and No. 6 Bryson DeChambeau tested positive for COVID-19 and were forced to withdraw. Note to self: Has anyone done a deep dive on just how accurate our COVID testing methods are? This is Rahm’s second failed test. The first bumped him out of the Memorial Tournament when he was on his way to winning it after three rounds. He was vaccinated at the start of Memorial week in early June so he shouldn’t be testing positive again. The more we know about COVID, it seems, the less we know.

That leaves seven of the World Ranking’s top 20 still in the Olympic field, although it will not include any of the medal winners from Rio de Janeiro in 2016—England’s Justin Rose, Sweden’s Henrik Stenson and Kuchar.

The Memorial Tournament had seven of the World Ranking’s top 10, for comparison’s sake.

The Olympic field will have 19 of the top 50-ranked players. The Arnold Palmer Invitational had 27; the Valspar Championship had 19.

This lack of depth, of course, is the dirty little secret of the Olympics. In order to ensure global involvement, the number of entrants per country is limited in all events. Maybe Kenya has the 12 best distance runners; maybe the U.S. has the eight best track sprinters – whatever, but only a few per country are allowed. Pick any event and a number of that sport’s best competitors end up sitting at home. That’s because the International Olympic Committee has to leave room for the Ashen Wu’s of the world.

There may be more COVID dropouts in golf by the time you read this. Certainly, there will be more COVID issues arising during the Games.

The global golf market seems already saturated between the PGA Tour, European PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, PGA Tour Champions and the rest. Golf seems unnecessary for the Olympics, which used to be reserved as a showcase for sports that didn’t have world stages 48 weeks a year, like archery, swimming and, well, just about any non-professional team sport.

Some have suggested that the 72-hole stroke-play format isn’t original enough to create interest. Actually, the 72-hole stroke-play format is what golf fans are used to and most comfortable with. Match play is proven to be a poor way to identify the best player. Should it be a mixed-team event with male and female players? There is no evidence in past golf history to support that, at least on the U.S. What LPGA players have the fan following or marquee name recognition value in the U.S. anywhere near that of DeChambeau, Rahm, Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler?

Forget that debate. What, you want to watch Olympic golfers pile up Stableford points or something?

Look, the Olympics can still deliver the only thing that matters—a closely contested competition. Nothing beats a dramatic, tight finish.

Therein lies Olympic golf’s strength—the medals. It was a breath of fresh air last time and great fun to watch the ladies compete hard for the silver and bronze medals, won by New Zealand’s Lydia Ko and China’s Shanshan Feng, respectively. (South Korea’s Inbee Park took the gold.) Tiger Woods brainwashed golfers a long time ago with his “Second place sucks” mantra.

It’s not true. Second place in the Olympics rocks. So does third place. (High five for Kuchar.)

In the unlikely event that someone such as Gunn Charoenkul medals, it will be a great story.

And in Thailand, he’ll definitely be kind of a big deal.

More Olympic Coverage on Morning Read

- Is Olympic Golf a Big Deal? It's All in Eye of the Beholder
Bryson DeChambeau Tests Positive for COVD-19, Out of Olympics
- Jon Rahm Out of Olympics After Positive COVID Test
- Don't Underestimate the Power of Olympics, or the Golfers Competing in Them