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Golf In the Olympics? Why Not?

By John M. Ross,
Karrie Webb
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Would it take the support of headliners like Karrie Webb to get golf into the Olympics? (Courtesy LPGA)

I have spent countless hours in front of that magical box, held in the grip of the Games of the XVII Olympiad, and it fascinates me as much now as it did when I first tuned it in, long, long ago. This is it, not the Barnum and Bailey thing. This is, indeed, the greatest show on earth.

It has the drama, the emotional steam, the heartbreak, the moment of truth. And who can resist that gush of patriotic pride at the sight of the young fellow or young girl getting a gold medal while the band plays "The Star Spangled Banner" in the background. Yes, it gets you right here.

We have to wait four years to see it, but it is worth the wait because it seems to have everything for the sportsman's or sports fan's insatiable appetite. And yet, there is something missing. A glaring gap in this tapestry of the world's people at play. There is no golf!

There were 32 sports represented on the Sydney menu, and hundreds of events within that framework. In theory at least, this is intended to represent the games and pastimes that are played on our planet. They even introduced Taekwondo, a sport that has been played for over 2,000 years apparently, but one I know nothing about. And Beach Volleyball, which I always thought was concocted by television just to get a few bikini-clad cuties on the tube also made the list of international sports. But no golf.

I've been baffled by this for some time. In fact, back when I was occupied with a monthly golf magazine, I decided to delve into the mystery surrounding that question, looking for answers and a solution. There were good reasons to expect some kind of explanation from the honchos of the International Olympic Committee. Unquestionably, golf dwarfed many of the other sports on the Olympic agenda in terms of participation and spectator interest. And if you gave one of the computer geniuses at the National Golf Foundation a few minutes, he could tell you what portion of the earth's surface is covered with golf courses.

My pursuit of the question attracted a horde of supporters, but it hardly stirred the IOC. They listened to me, but they had a whole hatful of standard replies. They stressed that one of their biggest problems was trying to keep the Games from getting out of size. Every sport wanted in. And golf had special needs. A golf course, for one thing, and reasonably close to the main site. And there was television, rapidly becoming the IOC's chief source of revenue at the time. The production costs for setting up cameras to cover even a few holes of play would be enormous, they pointed out. And then there'd be complaints if the coverage was too brief, or incomplete.

And then there was Joe Dey, "Mr. Golf," and the executive director of the U.S. Golf Association at the time. He was totally opposed to getting golf involved with the Olympics. Ever the purist, he complained that the IOC was getting soft on its once-rigid amateur code, and that the Games were being used by some countries for political purposes.

"Golf doesn't need the Olympics," he told me, pointedly. "We have the World Amateur team matches, which is twice as good since we play them every two years." Dey had been a prime mover of the World Amateur, played for the Eisenhower Trophy, which started in 1950. There were only 29 countries involved at the outset, but, indicative of golf's growth as a global sport, it now includes 52 and has been played in 20 different countries.

Fred Corcoran, major-domo of the World Cup of Golf in those days, also came running at me. Featuring matches between two-man pro teams, essentially, the Cup had been playing every year since 1953, and growing.

"Hey, we play every year," Corcoran jabbed, almost mimicking Dey, "and they already call it 'The Olympics of Golf,' don't they?"

This left me with little wind in my sail, but it really didn't change my thinking. If the Olympics represent the games of the world, golf should be included. It simply makes no sense to keep it out. After a time, my campaign, lacking support in some of the higher places, simmered down to merely idle chatter in the grillroom.

Now, some 20 years or more later, new hope seems on the horizon and support for the concept is coming from a most unanticipated source. David Fay, who now wears Joe Dey's old hat as Executive Director of the USGA, is not only supporting the idea, he's pushing it.

Fay, along with Peter Dawson, his counterpart with the Royal and Ancient, are joint secretaries of the World Amateur Council, and they have been given the green light to shape a new proposal to the IOC for adding golf to the Olympics. Of course, there had been a glimmer of hope prior to the 1996 games in Atlanta, where the Augusta National, site of the Masters, offered the use of the historic course for an Olympic event. It appeared doable for a time until a hassle between IOC officials and local civic leaders erupted, and it never did get off the ground.

Fay indicates he already has the solid support of the LPGA, including its headliners like Karrie Webb and Annika Sorenstam. Whether he can receive similar backup from the PGA is another matter. For one thing, it would create a substantial scheduling problem At least two weeks of the schedule could be affected if golf went on the Olympics agenda, and that means commitments, TV and others, that add up to big dollars. And then there's the question of who would play.

Tiger Woods and some of the other "name" players are making so much money that they're not likely to be easily tempted to playing for the honor of representing their country. Indeed, they don't seem inclined to rush into some of the multimillion dollar events that have been put together by the International Federation of Golf Tour, especially if they involve travel to distant points. The Anderson Consulting World Match Play Championship in Australia in early 2001, seems to be having trouble getting commitments from the top stars.

Again to my thinking, it is representation in the Games that is the important issue. Golf should be there. I don't think we need Tiger Woods or Karrie Webb to make it work. We see enough of them year round, including international events. My preference would be an Olympic event for amateur golfers, men and women.

It not only acknowledges the original Olympic concept of amateur competition, but it also would provide a plus for the pro tour promoters by showcasing the future stars of golf on an enormous stage. And isn't it time we started downsizing the dollar in pro golf? Just think, a priceless gold medal, instead of a million-dollar check!

Next time the Games begin in 2004, let's hope there's someone on the first tee.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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