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As U.S. Open starts, Olympic men’s golf picture far from settled

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Dustin Johnson is grouped with Bryson DeChambeau and Tony Finau for the first two rounds of this week’s U.S. Open at Winged Foot. It’s possible none of them will play in the Tokyo Olympics.

Such is the qualifying scenario for one of the hardest teams to make in all Olympic sports — the U.S. men’s golf roster.

The top four Americans in the Official World Golf Ranking (OWGR) after the 2021 U.S. Open will qualify outright for the Tokyo Games (assuming they are top 15 in the world, which at this point looks certain).

Since the OWGR is made up of a golfer’s results from the last two years, many tournaments with Olympic qualifying points at stake have already been played. This week’s U.S. Open, as a major, carries a significant amount of points (though next year’s U.S. Open will have the most points, as the ranking places greater weight on recent tournaments).

U.S. OPEN: NBC TV Schedule | GolfChannel.com Coverage

Johnson, coming off his FedEx Cup title, is ranked No. 1 in the world and No. 1 in Olympic qualifying.

But back in March, he ruled out playing in the Tokyo Olympics had they been held as originally planned in 2020. Johnson prioritized the FedEx Cup Playoffs, which were to start two weeks after the Olympic tournament on the other side of the world.

Much has changed in the last six months. The Olympics, now postponed to 2021. The PGA Tour schedule added an extra week between the Olympic tournament and the Playoffs next year (though the inserted tournament is a World Golf Championships event). And Johnson is now a FedEx Cup champion, crossing off a career goal.

Johnson’s manager said Tuesday that his golfer’s Olympic plans have not been discussed lately.

“We will likely sit down and look at the schedule later this year and formulate a plan for 2021,” David Winkle said in an email.

Golf Channel rankings guru Alan Robison has Johnson followed by Justin ThomasCollin Morikawa and Webb Simpson in the current U.S. Olympic qualifying standings. If Johnson passes on an Olympic spot, Xander Schauffele is next in line.

As of now, the following players would not qualify for the Olympics outright despite being ranked Nos. 7-11 in the world: Schauffele, Brooks Koepka, DeChambeau, Patrick Reed and Patrick Cantlay.

Last year at this time, Koepka led Olympic qualifying. He appeared a shoo-in for the 2020 Tokyo Games.

But with the Olympics pushed back a year, his points from winning the 2019 PGA Championship and placing fourth or better in last year’s other three majors were downgraded significantly with OWGR recency weighting. He has just one top-five PGA Tour finish in the last 12 months, while other Americans surged.

Likewise, Woods put himself in 2020 Olympic contention by winning the 2019 Masters and last October’s Zozo Championship in Japan.

But Woods, who continues to play a limited schedule (which the OWGR formula discourages), has finished higher than 37th in one tournament in 2020 (a tie for ninth at the Farmers Insurance Open in January).

He slid outside the top 20 in the OWGR and well outside the top 10 in U.S. Olympic qualifying. For Woods and just about any American, a victory at Winged Foot would put them in Olympic contention.

Koepka will miss the U.S. Open after battling knee and hip injuries. Fortunately for him and Woods, the biggest tournaments in Olympic qualifying are still to come, including a pair of Masters.

MORE: ‘Road to Tokyo’ Olympic, Paralympic channel launches on Peacock

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Olympic golf qualifying shifts, as do the projected fields

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When golf resumes, Tiger Woods must climb to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. As does Brooks Koepka.

The International Golf Federation announced Wednesday that the cutoff dates to choose the Olympic men’s and women’s golf fields will shift from June 2020 to June 2021. It was an expected move, given the Tokyo Games were also moved back exactly one year.

Now that the IGF decision is official, the previously projected Olympic golf fields can be ripped up. Six major tournaments are scheduled from now until the end of Olympic qualifying, which will jumble the world rankings.

A caveat: We don’t know when the world rankings will be unfrozen to restart the rolling, two-year window of results that make up the standings.

The PGA Tour is scheduled to resume in June, so that is an option. Rankings officials haven’t speculated. But men’s world rankings guru @VC606 put up a new Olympic men’s golf field projection for that very scenario.

It’s a projection that would include fewer than half of the available Olympic qualifying points, given more than one year of tournaments will still need to be played, and more weight is given to 2021 events than 2019 or 2020.

But, the projection offers a shake-up in the four Americans currently in Olympic qualifying position. The U.S. has 12 of the world’s top 18 at the moment, but no more than four golfers can qualify for the Olympics per nation per gender.

The U.S. Olympic qualifying leaders, in order, before sports were halted in March: Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka, Webb Simpson, Xander Schauffele.
Qualifying leaders if rankings unfreeze in June, according to @VC606: Patrick Reed, Thomas, Simpson, Bryson DeChambeau.

Why the change?

Koepka’s 2018 PGA Championship would no longer count for Olympic qualifying. His sterling results in 2019 majors, which would have counted significant Olympic qualifying points for a Tokyo Games in 2020, lost a lot of weight for an Olympics in 2021 given they will no longer be very recent in a rolling, two-year window. So Koepka, whose last top-20 PGA Tour finish was in July, drops to No. 8 in U.S. Olympic qualifying standings.

Woods, who was 10th in U.S. Olympic qualifying in early March, is now 12th. Like Koepka, his 2019 Masters title loses weight with the Olympics pushed back a year.

But the extra year should help Woods, who if sports weren’t halted likely needed to win the originally scheduled Masters, PGA or U.S. Open for a chance to get into a 2020 Olympic field. If the revised schedule holds up, he gets six chances for an Olympic qualifying boost at majors, including two at Augusta National.

Reed, a Rio Olympian, jumped from fifth among Americans in early March to first. Why? A strong start to 2020, including a win at the WGC-Mexico Championship in February. That result will not carry as much weight come June 2021, but for now, as one of the most recent top-level events, it’s very significant.

MORE: Who is @VC606?

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Tiger Woods, Rio gold medalists needed a boost to make 2020 Olympics. What about 2021?

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With the Tokyo Olympics postponed to 2021, OlympicTalk is taking a sport-by-sport look at where things stood before sports were halted and how global circumstances could alter the Olympic picture …

Who was in line to qualify for the Olympic men’s golf tournament before the coronavirus?
The Tokyo Olympic men’s and women’s golf fields were to be chosen from the world rankings after the men’s U.S. Open (men) and Women’s PGA Championship in June. Obviously that has all changed, but interesting storylines had developed in qualifying by mid-March.

The top men and near-locks to qualify for the 64-golfer field were Rory McIlroy (Ireland) and Jon Rahm (Spain). Americans took four of the next five spots, according to men’s golf rankings guru @VC606: Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka, Webb Simpson and Xander Schauffele.

The U.S. was the only nation to have the maximum four golfers. A nation can enter four if they’re all ranked in the top 15 in the world. Once past No. 15, a nation can have a maximum of two.

What about Tiger Woods?
Woods, though he won the 2019 Masters, dropped to 10th among Americans in Olympic qualifying in early March, according to @VC606.

He played just two events in the first two months of the season (not atypical for him), then didn’t enter March staples the Arnold Palmer Invitational and The Players Championship, reportedly due to his balky back.

The U.S. is so deep that current world No. 5 Dustin Johnson was not in Olympic qualifying position in early March (though Johnson said he would skip Tokyo this summer, before the coronavirus pandemic postponed the Games). Also off the bubble: Patrick ReedPatrick Cantlay and 2019 U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland.

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Which U.S. women were in line to qualify?
There were no ranking projections for June available like for the men, but the world rankings in March had Nelly Korda (world No. 2), Danielle Kang (No. 6) and Lexi Thompson (No. 9).

Korda, 21, is the daughter of 1998 Australian Open tennis champion Petr Korda and Czech Olympic tennis player Regina Rajchrtova. She ascended to No. 2 in February, matching the best ranking for a U.S. woman since Stacy Lewis‘ last week at No. 1 in 2014.

Thompson, who was as high as No. 2 in 2019, is the lone Rio Olympian of the U.S. trio in Olympic qualifying position in the March rankings. Ko Jin-Young of South Korea is No. 1, having won two majors in 2019.

Notably, neither Rio Olympic women’s or men’s gold medalist (Inbee ParkJustin Rose) was in qualifying position based on women’s rankings and men’s projections when sports were halted.

How does the Olympic postponement to 2021 change things?
Similar to tennis, it will all depend on when tournaments resume and what the cutoff date(s) will be to decide the Olympic fields.

The men’s and women’s golf rankings are frozen during the break, meaning older events whose ranking points would have fallen off in the two-year rankings window will temporarily stay on. But things could change once tournaments resume.

The longer the break, the more likely those older, 2018 tournaments will remain in the formula come 2021 if the decision-makers stick to having two full years of results make up the rankings. Older tournaments staying longer in the rankings could benefit Woods, whose top recent results were in late 2018 (PGA Championship runner-up, Tour Championship win) and early 2019 (Masters win).

MORE: Japan’s top golfer finds ties to Tokyo Olympics beyond the obvious

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