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Winning Olympic Gold is Nice, but For Golfers There Is Nothing Like a Major

Major championships are the gold standard by which professional golfers are measured, but what winning an Olympic medal means has yet to be clearly defined.
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For Korean Sungjae Im, winning an Olympic medal would mean an exemption from his country's mandatory two-year military service requirement.

For Korean Sungjae Im, winning an Olympic medal would mean an exemption from his country's mandatory two-year military service requirement.

TOKYO — Why does a gold medal mean so much to some people and not as much to others?

Everyone has grown up with the Olympics, so it would be difficult to find anyone in the Olympic golf competition's 60-player field who didn't watch the Olympics as a kid and think they were cool.

But, like the split between Democrats and Republicans, some covet a medal, while others crave major titles.

There is no rhyme or reason to the thinking, but it exists.

"I wanted to get used to the time difference between Japan and United States, so I flew to Korea," said Korean golfer Sungjae Im on his reason for skipping the British Open. “The time is the same here [as in Korea], so I made myself so comfortable and relaxed and prepared for the Olympic games.”

Both Im and fellow countryman Siwoo Kim have another very important reason for being prepared for the Olympics. If they medal, they will be exempt from their country's mandatory two-year military service requirement.

While both have said they desire to play well, like they do every week, and winning a medal is not the reason they are here, who are they kidding?

It’s like when you hear a player they don’t think about the money when they just won $1.2 million. It’s like Michael Douglas said in Wall Street, “It’s all about the money.”

All this being said, you have to give the Korean’s a pass. Who wants to go into the military for two years when you could be playing professional golf for a living? So their desire to win a medal is understandable.

American Justin Thomas is reveling in the Olympic experience, talking about the USA outfits sitting in his room when he checked in and how fun the overall Olympic has been. 

Thomas went so far as to suggest winning a medal is close to winning a major, but ultimately the 2017 PGA champion could not cross that line.

“It's tough," said Thomas on Wednesday. "If I'm going to choose, do I want to win a major or win a medal in the Olympics, I'll take a major. “(The Olympic competition) is obviously more special, and I would say harder to win because you have less chances, but major championships change your life in more than one way.”

Maybe Thomas hit the nail on the head -- it only comes up once every four years.

Which is why for other, lesser recognized, sports like archery and softball, the Olympics are their major. Golf? It's on television every week and, for the last 40 years or so, the media has been making a big deal about major championships. Fans have been programmed to believe the majors are a big deal. 

There was a time when the British Open and the Claret Jug were not as coveted as today, and other events, like the U.S. Amateur, British Amateur and Western Open, were considered major titles. And for a while the PGA Tour did not reflect winning the British Open in a player's Tour win total.  

Majors have evolved so maybe a gold medal will as well.

“I don’t know what it would mean,” said Ireland’s Rory McIlroy of the prospects of winning a medal. “I never dreamed of that, I dreamed of Claret Jugs and [Masters] green jackets and all that sort of stuff, I never dreamed of winning an Olympic medal, so I don’t know what it would mean until I actually got one.”

And that’s the point. If you don’t dream about something, it will never mean as much as what you did dream about.

Is there any doubt that if McIlroy won a gold medal, he would trade it for a green jacket?

When young golfers start dreaming about golf medals, then the desire to win one may usurp winning a major, but don’t hold your breathe.