JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — Fair or not, there is a general sense that male professional golfers give off a vibe of disturbing disinterest in the Olympic Games. Some of those who are choosing to show up seem to be doing so as if it were a chore to be ticked off between cleaning the gutters and wheeling the garbage to the end of the drive. Or attending Sunday brunch at Grandma’s house.
Truthfully, five of world’s top six male players plan to be in Tokyo in a few weeks, with Americans Justin Thomas, Collin Morikawa, Xander Schauffele and Bryson DeChambeau joining world No. 1 Jon Rahm of Spain. The seventh-ranked player in the world, Patrick Cantlay, would love to be there, but he can’t, as the four-man U.S. roster declared “last call” after DeChambeau’s name at No. 6. That goes for Brooks Koepka and Patrick Reed, too, who are top-10 players on the outside looking in.
In recent days, what we have seen on the men’s side is a steady trickle of Olympic defections. The most notable prior to this had been Dustin Johnson, the second-ranked player in the world, but he is hardly alone. The group taking off Tokyo includes Louis Oosthuizen (South Africa), Tyrrell Hatton (England), Adam Scott (Australia), Victor Perez (France) and Sergio Garcia (Spain), as well as Lee Westwood and Matt Fitzpatrick (England), Bernd Wiesberger (Austria), Emiliano Grillo (Argentina) and Martin Kaymer (Germany). There are more. They all have their reasons, and to each his own.
Who are we to question their scheduling in not adding an event that for most, is a long, long way to travel. Johnson wants to focus on the FedEx Cup, and Grillo needs to improve his position in the standings (he is 41st). Garcia feels he can represent his country in the Ryder Cup, but he might just get that September week off, too. We can only hope for a closer to full turnout for France (2024) and Los Angeles (2028), golf’s next two at-bats in the Olympics.
It’s certainly a busy time of the year, with the British Open still on tap in England, as well as the lucrative FedEx Cup playoffs that line up not long after the Olympics. Post-Olympics, the men have a no-cut, cash free-for-all at the WGC event in Memphis, one last regular-season event to scramble for points and positioning (Wyndham Championship), and three straight weeks of playoffs, with s purse slowly inching toward one bazillion. Even Jim Mora would get excited about these playoffs.
History? We’re not calling your number today. You’ll have to wait for another time. For the men, at the very least.
The Olympics are all about wanting to be there. If it’s not that important, stay home and binge “Yellowstone,” or “Dexter,” and nobody should line up to question it. How do the women feel about participating in the Olympic Games? Why, Night, meet Day. Their chips have been pushed to the middle of the table, as Tokyo, to them, represents can’t miss theater. There is “want to” there, and that’s the most important ingredient of all.
“I just think men golfers, they just have so many big events,” 2016 women’s gold medalist Inbee Park of South Korea said at this week’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. “They definitely play a different level of golf with a lot of different perspective. They have so many opportunities and so many different weeks with so many big tournaments. For us, I think it's a little different. We're not as big as men's golf. I think girls just treat it a little differently.
“I’m sure not everyone's goal is the Olympics. It really depends on the player, but I think most of the players think that it's a very special opportunity, and I think I know a lot of Korean girls, I think it's one of their most wanted goals to be on the team. For me as well. I've achieved a lot in golf, won a lot of majors, won a lot of tournaments, but winning the gold medal was something really different. I wish a lot of the players think the same and treat Olympics the same. I think it's definitely something that you should experience.”
How good do you have to be to make the South Korean Olympic team? Well, the women’s standings won’t be finalized until Monday, but right now, Hyo-Jo Kim holds down the fourth spot (a team can have four players if all are ranked top 15), and she’s No. 8 in the Rolex Rankings. In truth, what we have on the LPGA Tour — take this week’s event in Atlanta, for instance — is an Olympics on wheels that travels from town to town.
Just glance down this week’s tee sheet at Atlanta Athletic Club: India, Hong Kong, Czech Republic, Denmark, Australia, Japan, China, New Zealand, South Korea, France, Sweden, Northern Ireland, Philippines, England, Mexico, and oh, even Shrewsbury, Mass. If you’ve ever been there, you’d know it’s practically its own country. Hey, did we mention Denmark?
We’ve probably left a few countries out, but that’s kind of our point. The pool of women’s talent just gets deeper and deeper, and geography wider and wider, and the players of the LPGA serve as terrific ambassadors of their game. Have clubs, have passports, willing to travel.
The passion the LPGA players bring to the Olympic opportunity should in no way be diminished by those on the men side who will be hanging “Gone fishin’” shingles under the porch lights late next month. We can talk “Grow the Game” initiatives until the very last bucket of balls is gone and the lights are turned off, but this is a chance to perform in front of a different fan base – a general sports fan base, peripheral golf fans at best – and help bring attention, support and federation dollars to countries where the game still is very much on training wheels.
“Golf in the Olympics is just huge for the game. If you ask young kids, even young boys or young girls, what are the four major championships or five major championships on the women's side, they may be able to name one or two. But they all know what the Olympics are,” said Heather Daly-Donofrio, chief tour operations officer for the LPGA. “As a young child, knowing that they could maybe win an Olympic medal in golf is just huge for the growth of the game because young kids can connect to the Olympics and everybody knows what it is.
“It just provides such a tremendous platform for our players. (Former) Commissioner (Mike) Whan used to say tune in to the Olympics this week, but the good news is you can see the same players 34 other times of the year (on the LPGA), because we pretty much have the Olympics-type field in our Tour events every week.”
If three Americans swept the medals in men’s golf, would it move the needle for youths to switch from soccer or lacrosse or baseball to pursue golf in the U.S.? Probably not. But what if Abraham Ancer were to win gold for Mexico? Or Hideki Matsuyama won at home in Tokyo? Or Fabrizio Zanotti wins gold for Paraguay?
Just look at what we had on the medal stand in Rio five summers ago. The men’s game had England (Justin Rose), Sweden (Henrik Stenson), and U.S.A. (Matt Kuchar). The women’s stand was South Korea (Inbee Park), New Zealand (Lydia Ko) and China (Shanshan Feng)
“Queenbee Makes History at the Olympics!” was the Sunday headline in the Korean Times. The last woman to win a golf competition in the Olympics had been American Margaret Abbott from the United States in 1900. She shot 47 over nine holes and was handed a bowl, not a medal. So Park’s triumph really was historic.
Feng was asked about the impact of winning gold for China in 2016. She said back in 2015, before the Olympic Games, China had about 3,000 registered junior players. Today the number is closer to 100,000. China had fewer than 200 female professionals. Now it has about 10 players competing on the LPGA. The LPGA events are being shown on television back home. Junior players don’t have to travel to the U.S. to play junior tournaments. And now the talent level has gathered the eye of U.S. college coaches. Free schooling. Slowly, the tide is rising.
“I think Chinese are really good at playing golf,” Feng said, “so if we can have more people starting to play golf now, I believe that we're going to have more and more like World No. 1s and Olympic medalists coming up.”
If a Chinese player were to medal again in Tokyo, nothing but positives and growth would come from it. Feng will be there. She wants to be there. It’s important. For the women who will head to Tokyo, and most will, universally, it’s a calling. It’s a long way to go, and it’s really not worth the air miles if the heart doesn’t come along for the ride.