Good As Gold

Imagine that the PGA Championship was the 2016 Olympics. Y.E. Yang's improbable victory might have touched off the next golf boom, and even Tiger Woods could've found a silver lining in his most crushing defeat
August 23, 2009

Oh, those Olympiccommitteemen. They have their tricks. Last week the IOC used the PGAChampionship at Hazeltine as a top-secret trial run for the 2016 Olympics, atwhich golf is likely to be one of the 30-some sports in the lineup. (The trialrun was so secret that even the IOC didn't know about it.) So, not only didY.E. Yang of South Korea win the Wanamaker Trophy, but he also won the trialOlympic golf competition, men's division. For his work he received a virtualgold medal.

In othertop-secret IOC news, Tiger Woods of the U.S. took the virtual silver medal andLee Westwood of England secured the virtual bronze, in a match of cards withRory McIlroy of Northern Ireland. The tie-breaking match-of-cards part? Thecommittee actually invented that on the fly on Sunday night when they realizedthey had only one virtual bronze medal on hand. Staging an Olympics is acomplicated business, with a million details to work out.

On Sunday nightin the Hazeltine press tent, Yang's agent, Ryan Park, did a superb job in hisunannounced tryout for the position of Korean-English translator for the 2016Olympic golf tournaments, which will include two 72-hole stroke-play events,one for 60 male professionals and the other for a like number of woman pros.(You wanted an Olympic golf event with amateurs? You must still have a MarkSpitz poster on your bedroom wall.)

Korean women arealready a dominant force in women's golf. (There are 46 Koreans on the LPGAtour.) As for the Korean men, there's Yang and K.J. Choi right now, establishedtalents, and who knows what the next seven years will bring?

Asked to predicthow many real medals Korean golfers will win in the summer of '16, Yang,through Park, said, "Well, there are still a lot of aspiring golfers inKorea. In 2016 I think Korea has a very good chance. We might not win the gold,but I do think Korea has a good chance to win a few medals, silver and bronze.And who knows? I think that Korea has a really good chance at winning gold aswell, actually."

In July 2016 Yangwill be 44, Tiger will be 40 and Westwood will be 43. Will they be representingtheir countries, along with their home tours and themselves, when golf iscontested in the Olympics for the first time since 1904? A shake of the Magic8-Ball: REPLY HAZY, TRY AGAIN. Tiger says he wants to play, under twoconditions. One, that he's not retired. Two, that he makes the team. Tiger'sfather, Earl, was a big Olympic buff. Tiger's a big Olympic buff. He's notgoing to be retired. He's not going to not qualify. For Westwood and Yang, it'sharder to say.

According to aproposal submitted to the IOC by the International Golf Federation's OlympicGolf Committee, led by PGA Tour executive vice president Ty Votaw, the top 15ranked players in the world will qualify automatically. After that, spots 16through 60 will be decided by going straight down the world rankings, with thisgame-changing proviso: For those 45 spots, no country will be allowed to havemore than two representatives.

That's good newsfor Vijay Singh. Singh will be 53 in '16, yet he wants to play. Let's say Singhis still playing the regular Tour then. Let's say his World Ranking is 200th.Let's say no Fijian is ranked higher. According to an SI analysis of theselection process, he'd be a lock to make the 60-man Olympic field. Strange,but true. That's because of the two-per-country rule. It will eliminate scoresof elite golfers, but that same rule will help create places for players fromany number of countries. China! India! Belgium!

But the newswould not be so good for traditional golfing powers. For instance, let's say in2016 Ian Poulter and Ross Fisher and Lee Westwood, all from the United Kingdom,are ranked 16th, 17th and 18th in the world, respectively. In that scenarioWestwood would be out. Bad for Lee. But as the Olympics thrive oncontroversy—and also on little teams that could, like the Jamaican bobsledteam—it's all good. In the grand scheme of things it all evens out. Accordingto an SI analysis, on the women's side the last player in, based on currentrankings, would be Marta Silva, ranked 723rd in the world. The Portuguese GolfFederation should be throwing a party.

In any event thedevil is in the details, right? Votaw said on Sunday night that after furtherreview, three players per country, after the top 15, might be a better recipe.That would most likely mean fewer countries but more brand-name players.Politics is all about compromise, and the Olympics are, of course, highlypolitical. As for Votaw, he has other things on his mind, like where the '16Games will be played. The IOC is considering four bids, from Chicago, Madrid,Tokyo and Rio de Janeiro. In October the IOC will announce the winning city.Votaw says the IGF is open to private clubs or public courses or courses noteven built yet. In Madrid and Tokyo golf is played chiefly at private clubs.Chicago has a host of options. There are courses in Rio, but they would needserious modification to challenge Tiger Woods.

And while another72-hole, stroke-play, every-golfer-for-himself tournament with a tiny field maynot sound like the most creative way to stage an Olympic competition, it hasone advantage. It is, Votaw says, what the players want. In 1996, the last timethere was a push for Olympic golf, many of the leading pros were against theidea of spending another week playing only for pride. At the PGA theplayers—guinea pigs in a grand IOC experiment—expressed unreserved enthusiasmfor the idea.

McIlory, who tiedfor third at Hazeltine, was uninterested in the idea of Olympic golf before hecame to America for his first prolonged visit as a pro in March. Then he was ateenager. Now he's 20, and by the time he got to Chaska, Minn., he'd had achange of heart. "The more I think about it, the more it will be great forgolf just to globalize the game," said McIlroy, the sport's wisest youngman. "At the start I sort of thought it's not fair for the other athleteswho train four years for the Olympics at the height of their careers. But I cansee this being great for golf." At the end of the day, golfers will alwaysput their game first. It's in their blood.

If golf is addedto the Olympic roster in October, as expected, the 2016 season will be a thrilla minute, or something like that. The Masters in April. The PlayersChampionship in May. The U.S. Open in June. The British Open and the Olympicsand the PGA over the course of the summer. The Ryder Cup at Hazeltine inSeptember.

Then, maybe,Tiger will be ready to retire. In the meantime he'll be looking for a couple ofthings that Jack Nicklaus doesn't have. Namely, a 19th professional major andone real Olympic gold medal.

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TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by ROBERT BECKIN AND YANG The game-winner came on the short (352-yard) par-4 14th hole, where Yang wedged in for eagle from 20 yards off the green to take a one-stroke lead.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)