Earlier this month, the world’s number one golfer, Dustin Johnson, announced that he wouldn’t be representing the United States at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, this summer.
“It’s a lot of traveling at a time where it’s important for me to feel like I’m focused playing on the PGA Tour,” said the man who, along with Patrick Reed, Brooks Koepka and Phil Mickelson, made a 15,000-mile round trip to Saudi Arabia last year just to bank a reported seven-figure appearance fee in the Saudi International tournament.
He’s a busy man, clearly, but then golfers are always busy, especially when it comes to the Olympic Games.
Before its return to the Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2016, the last time golf had featured at the Olympics was in St. Louis, Miss., in 1904.
That’s 112 years of nobody giving a damn; not sports fans, not the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and certainly not the golfers themselves.
Did anybody miss it? Really?
Sixty top golfers were invited to play in Rio but 21 of the world’s best decided not to travel, many citing the threat of the Zika virus as a reason, or an excuse, not to go. While England’s Justin Rose took the gold, many stayed home, including the four highest ranked players: Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy.
While McIlroy played the Zika card for his absence, the Northern Irishman also remarked that he wouldn’t even watch Olympic golf on TV, preferring to tune in to “track and field, swimming, diving . . . the stuff that matters.”
At least Australia’s Adam Scott, another absentee, was honest, saying the Olympics was “nothing I’ve ever aspired to do and I don’t think I ever will.”
And if the golfers don’t care, why should we?
Quite why golf came back is anyone’s guess. If it was to add a bit of sporting stardust to the Games then it missed the mark spectacularly. If it was to “grow the game” in those parts of the world untouched by its wonder then it failed again.
In 2009, when the IOC announced it was reinstating golf to its roster, golf legend Tom Watson feared that it might “dilute” the game’s four major tournaments (the Masters, PGA Championship, US Open and British Open).
He needn’t have worried.
Why? Because there’s no money on offer in the Olympics — and that puts it way down the list of most golfers’ priorities.
In truth, golf has about as much place in the Olympic Games as competitive eating and, having seen the golf at the 2016 Games, I know which I’d rather watch.
For many sports (and, let’s face it, you would be hard pushed to call golf a “sport” anyway), the Olympics represents the pinnacle of athletic achievement, an event where competitors pit themselves against the very best exponents in the world.
But golf doesn’t need the Olympics, not like track and field or swimming do. In golf, the world’s best play each other all the time; in the majors, in the World Golf Championship events and then pretty much every week on tour. In that respect, Olympic soccer and tennis can make way for events that would benefit from being in the Olympics, like squash or lacrosse. And as for rugby — really?
Of course, if the IOC wanted to, it could simply make golf revert to the original ethos of the Games by making the event strictly for amateur players, giving those up-and-coming players that rarest of opportunities to represent their country in the Olympics.
Failing that, they could look at their famous Olympic motto — “Faster, Higher, Stronger” — and ask whether golf really ticks any of those boxes.
Clearly, it doesn’t.
In fact, competitive eating ticks more.
Gavin Newsham is the co-founder of Golf Punk magazine and has also written for Golf Monthly and Golf World.