I get it. Golf isn’t for everyone. Just like how some people consider baseball too slow for their viewing pleasure, golf suffers the same fate to an even larger extent. However, golf at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics has had even the most diehard golf fans falling asleep.
The men’s golf event is currently in between its third and final rounds, with the women’s event set to take place between Wednesday, August 4 and Saturday, August 7. Be real with me for a second: How many of you out there can tell me who’s leading the men’s golf event after the third day of competition? Obviously, the hardcore fans are going to know. This question isn’t for them. It’s for the casual fans who follow the major golf tournaments: the Masters, both Opens, and the PGA Championship, and are aware of the big storylines surrounding the PGA Tour in general. That’s the crowd that the Olympic Committee had the task of trying to retain with their tournament, so let’s see if they succeeded.
Without looking it up, who’s leading after 54 holes? Xander Schauffele. He’s the world’s number five golfer. He’s not the biggest name involved — that would probably be Rory McIlroy who currently sits tied for fifth place. You could say that Bryson DeChambeau and/or Jon Rahm are bigger names, but they had to step away from the Olympics due to COVID-19 complications. Maybe Morikawa, but he still hasn’t reached the same heights of fame that McIlroy has achieved earlier in his career.
That’s not the point though. The point is that nobody cares how many big names are involved. Good golf is good golf, and with 2021 being the sport’s second year back in the Olympics, you’d think fans would be eager to see it on the world’s biggest stage. That hasn’t been the case though. The Olympics as a whole have taken a hit, but golf has been hit especially hard. So, what could have been done to create more buzz around this tournament?
The draw of the Olympics is being able to showcase talent from around the world in both well-known and obscure sports. The Olympics has been known for showcasing those sports in a slightly different manner than its fans are normally used to. Take basketball for example. While the game is essentially the same, there are minor rule changes, court adjustments, and officiating standards that NBA fans are not accustomed to seeing. It brings a different feel to the sport unique to the Olympics for American viewers. The Olympics are not trying to replicate the NBA, and that’s a good thing.
Olympic golf, on the other hand, as presented today, is trying to become an unofficial fifth major event played every four years without the buzz that makes the majors so exciting. It’s simply another tournament played with the same format we see every other week. I can’t blame the Olympics for trying this. Golf is steeped in tradition. The Olympics want to stand out, but not at the expense of being treated as a joke. That being said, there is still a path that the Olympic Committee could have taken to maintain golf’s traditions while standing out from the major tournaments.
Let’s talk about match play — a much less common golf tournament format, but one that would suit the Olympics very well. Match play differs from stroke play in that scoring is done based on individual holes rather than every stroke. Basically, if Golfer A gets a par on a hole and Golfer B gets a triple bogey, Golfer B would only be down one rather than three. Match play tends to lead to golfers taking more risks as well, because they’re only competing against a single competitor. If Golfers A and B are both lying three, but Golfer A is six feet from the hole, while golfer B is in the rough with obstacles obstructing the line to the pin, Golfer B will be more inclined to take a riskier shot to attempt to draw even on that hole. It’s a style of play that both the Ryder Cup and Presidents’ Cup have adopted over the years that breaks up traditional scoring and is always a welcome breath of fresh air. Even further, the Ryder and Presidents’ Cups are typically presented as international tournaments with each player involved representing their country. Huh? That sounds an awful lot like something that would fit the Olympics beautifully.
Rather than keeping golf as a purely individual event, match play could open Olympic golf up to becoming a team event in the same way that gymnastics does. While we could still recognize the individual players for their success, we could also recognize the countries as a whole in a team sense, thus enveloping the tournament in a larger sense of patriotism.
There are obviously some kinks in this format that would need to be worked out. For example, the Olympics currently field 60 golfers from around the globe for their tournament. If the Olympics still wanted the chance to recognize the individual golfers who did well in a head-to-head style tournament, they’d have to increase the field to 64 players and expand the tournament to take place over the course of six days rather than the normal four (So?). The Olympics could also reduce the number of players to 32 or 16 in order to have the event take place over a more reasonable amount of time, but that would then limit the reach of the sport as fewer of the game’s elite would be able to attend.
I’m not saying my plan would fix everything, but with how poorly golf has fared in terms of viewership for these Olympics, it might be time to take a step back and look at different strategies of marketing the sport. All I’m saying is that it would be fun, and it’s worth a shot. So, Paris, the ball’s in your court (or in your green, hardy har har). You have an opportunity to really shake things up at the 2024 Olympics. Stop trying to replicate the PGA Tour and be your own thing.