Challenge for Olympic golf? Finding more medals

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SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — With Olympic golf qualifying starting next month, the sport assured a spot in the next two Olympics (and likely 2028 as well), and the U.S. Open happening at Shinnecock Hills this week, International Golf Federation executive director Antony Scanlon sat down to discuss the second modern edition of Olympic golf in 2020 and what officials hope(d) would be different than in Rio …

OlympicTalk: Take me through the process of deciding to keep the Olympic golf format unchanged from 2016 to 2020. Were there any changes floated around?

Scanlon: Three weeks after the Olympics, all of us got together at Hazeltine, at the Ryder Cup, and said all bets are off. Let’s look at everything. The first thing we looked at was are there any other opportunities for more Olympic medals? We looked at opportunities with team events and mixed team events, etc. Once you got down to the realities of trying to condense that into 16 days of Olympic competition, you’re pretty much constricted to a 72-hole stroke play for men and the ladies. To get the players buying on that, they liked the four rounds of stroke play to determine who the best champion was. They didn’t want to come up with some sort of tricky event just before that would affect their own individual events. We had great ideas, went to different players with it, especially those that had been to the Olympics, get their feedback. They said, stick with what we’ve got.

OlympicTalk: The IOC might have been pretty open to a mixed team event because they’ve been adding mixed-gender events in other sports to the Olympics.

Scanlon: They certainly would have supported it if we could have fit it into those 16 days, but as it is, it’s a lot of golf for the players when you add that plus a full, 72-hole stroke-play event, and then following that a Ryder Cup, etc., toward the end of the season it starts to become too much golf for the players. And we thought it was best to capitalize on the success of what we had in Rio, really, and take it from there.

OlympicTalk: Tim Finchem said shortly after Rio that he wanted to “tweak the format” of Olympic golf. Was a team event or mixed-gender event what he was talking about?

Scanlon: Yeah. That’s pretty much around the time we were all meeting and talking about it. That was the challenge we put ourselves, and we still actually have that challenge. And that is to look for ways for us to have more opportunities for medals for the athletes. That surge will continue beyond Tokyo and through to Paris. If we can come up with preserving the 72-hole stroke play, which the players really support, to some other event. One suggestion, and this would mean the IOC having to really rethink their policies, is similar to the men’s World Cup [of Golf], where you used to have a team event in addition to an individual event.

Editor’s Note: In this scenario, golfers would not play multiple tournaments at the Olympics. Rather, their scores from the individual event would also count toward a team event. This was the 2013 World Cup of Golf’s format.

But the IOC currently doesn’t loop two events into one. Well, there is with gymnastics [qualifying scores count for advancement into team and individual finals]. There is with equestrian, but they’re trying not to do that. But who knows? The IOC is also evolving. They’re talking about esports now. This [scores counting for individual and team events] could be one way. That is one avenue we would explore for Paris [2024], see if that’s possible.

OlympicTalk: What about the makeup of the fields? Did you look at trying to ask the IOC for more spots in each field, or changing qualifying to let more golfers in from the top countries like the U.S. and England?

Editor’s Note: The U.S. has five of the top nine golfers in the men’s world ranking. South Korea has six of the top 13 women. A country can’t qualify more than four golfers into either Olympic men’s or women’s tournament.

Scanlon: The Olympics is about participation as well as winning medals. I really think that in Rio we got the balance between diversity of field and strength of field really well. As it is, the IOC allows us to have four per country as a maximum, where normally it would be three. So we have an exception there, similar to tennis. So if we go back to Rio, we had a total of 41 countries out of 120 athletes that we had in both the men’s and women’s fields. That’s pretty diverse, and it was a strong field. If you start to trick it up and reduce the number of countries that are participating, I think it takes something away. And one of the reasons why we’re part of the Olympic program is to widen our engagement of our sport to a bigger audience, and that was shown in Rio.

We’d love more athletes, but the reality with the IOC is no. We have stick with the 60 that we have with men and women.

OlympicTalk: Did you ask the IOC if you could have more athletes?

Scanlon: We actually did that before even Rio. We were looking for a field of, I think, 85, and they made a blanket rule of keeping the numbers the way they are [for 2020]. And I can see why because after our request, they admitted five extra sports through the [Tokyo 2020] organizing committee, which added extra athletes. I can see why they capped us.

OlympicTalk: What about adding Paralympic golf?

Scanlon: We’re bidding for Paris, an opportunity to have lower-limb amputees participate. We had some very good meetings with the [International Paralympic Committee] and have great support from all of our national federations and IGF membership for that. Our bid goes in, I think, the ninth of July, and, hopefully, come January next year we’ll get some positive news on that.

OlympicTalk: What are your thoughts on turnout from the top golfers after so many skipped Rio?

Scanlon: We’re constantly talking throughout with player liaisons and directly to the agents and the players. The players that weren’t there in Rio, and the reasons for it, I think some of them now regret that. I think Tokyo is a different landscape. It’s in the second-largest golf nation in the world. I think there’s great opportunity for the profile of our athletes to take that opportunity of being in Tokyo with that audience. I don’t see anything prohibiting any of the players coming this time.

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