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In Depth: golf at the Olympics

GOLF returns to the Olympics next year. What happened last time golf appeared in 1904 and how much of an impact will it have in 2016?

GOLF will be back as an Olympic sport for the 2016 Rio Olympics. It will be the first time golf has been included in the summer Olympic program since the early 1900’s but there has been plenty of criticism from within golf circles about the format and field.

One of the most vocal has been Australia’s Adam Scott. 

Consider the last time golf was in the Olympics in 1904 when 77 golfers played matchplay at the Glen Echo Country Club in St.Louis. Representatives of just two countries formed that field; 74 Americans and 3 Canadians and despite the overwhelming odds, a Canadian by the name of George Lyons won the Olympic gold medal.

Lyons took up golf late in life after setting a Canadian record for pole vault when he was 18, playing baseball, rugby and soccer and representing Canada for cricket scoring a record 238 not out for his home club on one occasion. 

After a friend encouraged Lyons to take up the game when he was 37, the insurance salesman went on to win the Canadian Amateur Championship a record eight times and finished second in the US Amateur in 1906 - and of course the gold medal at the 1904 Olympics, beating the more highly fancied American H. Chandler Egan in the 36-hole match play final, 3 and 2.

And all this with what was described as "a coal-heaver's swing" that looked like he was "using a scythe to cut wheat."

Lyon was one of Canada’s greatest all-round sportsmen. It's the sort of wonderful story you hear in amateur sport from time to time.

And it's one of the reasons Adam Scott has been so critical of golf’s Olympic inclusion.

"People watch us (as pros) play 45 weeks a year,” Scott said late last year. "If you really wanted to grow the game you’d have the Olympics for amateurs.” 

But the Olympics is now a different beast to the one that was held in St.Louis in 1904. Where once just amateurs could play, the Olympic golf field will be compromised of the top-15 players in the world, but no more than four from one country. The next 45 players earning a spot if they represent countries who don’t already have two representatives.

OLYMPIC GOLF PREVIEW:

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Scott is currently Australia’s second-highest ranked golfer and would earn an automatic spot in the field if he maintains that ranking but, when asked again last week for his thoughts on competing in the Olympics, it doesn’t sound like Scott will be rushing to book his flight to Rio.

"I've been pretty open and outspoken that it's not really a priority of my scheduling next year which is based around the majors, and if the Olympics fits in then it does," Scott said.

"The gap in the schedule there - some time off looks quite good actually." 

Scott’s other concern is the decision to play a regular ol’ 72-hole stroke play tournament, rather than a more interesting format like matchplay.

"I'm not really sure how just having another golf tournament is really going to enhance the game or grow the game any more than any other tournament just because it's the Olympics,” Scott added.

On the face of it, it’s hard to disagree with anything Scott has said. 

Any sort of matchplay team format would have been infinitely more interesting to watch than the standard 72-hole strokeplay event. And to see the world’s best amateur golfers rather than professionals playing for an Olympic gold medal would be a unique spectacle. 

We could consider tennis as a model, which has been part of the Olympic program since 1988.

The list of tennis gold medal winners certainly includes a good share of some of the greats including Steffi Graf, the Williams sisters, Andre Agassi and Rafael Nadal. I’m sure each of them cherishes their Olympic gold medal, but I’d question whether it ranks anywhere near as high as their major tennis tournament trophies.

And for the wider tennis audience, it’s doesn’t garner anywhere near the anticipation of the four annual major tennis tournaments, and seems nothing more than just another tournament. Albeit one that is only played every four years. 

It remains to be seen what sort of impact golf’s inclusion in the Olympics will have, not just for golf fans, but on the broader sport-loving community. It’s hard not to expect that golf in the Olympics will end up on par with the interest tennis receives.

Most of us golf fans will watch it if we can. Australians will cheer for an Australian victory and if not, some sort of close finish would be good to watch. But unless something truly extraordinary happens, the winner’s name will go down in history and will most likely be an answer at the next pub trivia night.

It’s looking unlikely that Adam Scott will be the answer to that question and it’s certain we won’t be hearing a story anywhere near as interesting George Lyon’s.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Michael Green

Michael Green founded AussieGolfer.com.au - Australia's #1 golf blog - in 2007, is a member of The Australian Golf Writers Association and has covered some of Australia's biggest golf tournaments, including the Australian Open, the Presidents Cup and World Cup of Golf.

Michael began playing golf as a 10-year-old in Adelaide where his father introduced him to the game.

He has managed to maintain a single-figure handicap while studying, living and working abroad and keeping a close eye on his three children.

Michael has a PhD in Physics and when not writing about golf, he continues to work in medical research in Sydney.

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