With Adam Scott and Louis Oosthuizen both withdrawing from the Olympic Games, golfs inclusion in the event has once again come under the magnifying glass. The general feeling towards golf being in the Olympics seems to be one of positivity, certainly within the circles I mix around in on the European Tour. It would be foolish to say that golf won’t benefit in one way or another from its inclusion.
My understanding is that the people at the top hope golfs inclusion will primarily boost interest in the game and subsequently participation down the line, thus benefiting the golf industry eventually. This may well happen, and there would be those that proclaim ‘mission accomplished, job done’. But at what cost will this happen?
Currently, the main markets for golf according to a World Wide Golf Report by Datatech are The U.S, Canada, Japan, South Korea and The United Kingdom. The United States accounts for around half of all golf activity worldwide. However, apart from South Korea and China (not mentioned in the list), where golf participation is growing, the other countries are witnessing declines in the amount of people playing the game. And with no signs of that trend abating, you have to ask who will be inspired by golf featuring in the Olympics. The Japanese people are experiencing economic woes and have been for the best part of 30 years. It’s hardly coincidental that since their economy began shrinking, so too did the participatory rate for golf. It’s difficult to see how or why people would all of a sudden choose to start playing more golf in countries like The U.S, Canada and The U.K, unless the game changes significantly to accommodate for people who are clearly put off by the nature of the way golf is currently played. If you are part of the ruling Communist Party in China, golf is seemingly played with as much trepidation as stealing a Mars bar from the local off license. To me, it’s difficult to see how The Olympics will have much of an effect on these developed nations.
So let’s turn to the idea that new countries, or ’emerging markets’ might become entranced by golf. Firstly, these new countries will likely be some of the poorest on the planet. They will almost certainly have to be funded by overseas investment, for their governments, you would hope, would see more sense in spending public money on education or infrastructure as opposed to golf courses. Secondly, you have the uneasy truth that building golf courses in these untouched parts of the world would cause lasting damage to local communities, small businesses and ecological environments. (On a similar topic, George Monbiot wrote an interesting article about this in The Guardian recently)
I don’t want to paint a bleak picture, it’s just I think it would be speculative to say that golf will see significant increases in participation around the world due to its inclusion in The Olympics. I think any inclines or declines we are currently witnessing will likely continue trending in that direction for a while, regardless of golfs Olympic status.
Apart from maybe the U.K, where golf originated, golfs popularity has risen alongside booming economies. The rise of golf in America, could be contributed to a number of factors; individuals like Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods, a growing economy which America has largely enjoyed since World War Two, or population growth. All of these things have played a role. But look at golf in China over the last decade, it has grown exponentially among the upper classes, alongside their economy. But things have turned economically. Golf participation in America has declined since the financial crash in 2008. People have less money and so they are spending less on hobbies and interests. The same thing is almost inevitable in China. There is huge uncertainty about the Chinese economy. I saw an example of just one of their problems when I played in The BMW Masters last year just outside Shanghai. The amount of empty mansions circling the golf course at Lake Malaren is astonishing. And I believe part of the reason the event is no longer taking place is because the owner of the resort owes BMW millions of pounds and hasn’t paid up. Possibly a sign of what’s beginning to unravel in China. My point is, golf seems to have an inextricable link to big money, big business and corporate enterprise, and when those things begin to slow down, so too, does golf.
Finally, I’ll stick up for Adam Scott and Louis Oosthuizen. They have a right to do what they want. The Olympics isn’t and has never been a main prize in golf. Dare I say it, it never will. You can’t say they aren’t interested in growing the game either. Look at Louis’ academy for example. He has, and is, putting back into the game just what he got out, through helping kids improve just the way Ernie Els did in South Africa over the last couple of decades. Adam is by all accounts an extremely humble, down to earth guy. He has taken Australian golf to new heights along with Jason Day in recent years. Then consider that top golfers have a lifestyle of opulence. The kind you won’t find in the Athletes Village in Rio. You might say they should just suck it up and stay with the rest of the athletes, or, like me, you might say they want to win and so to win, you shouldn’t change a winning formula. You should look to find accommodation that is more suited to the kind you would live in during normal competitive weeks. Which is what one golfer has done I believe, at a cost of tens of thousand of pounds. I won’t mention names but I was told of this by a caddie who will be at Rio himself. Therefore logistically I imagine Rio will prove to be nightmarish.
There are reasons to play in The Olympics, that I can see. It could be seen as doing the game of golf a service in return for what is has given you. But I think a player has every right to have reservations about golf in The Olympics. The kind you cannot criticise. Debate yes, but not criticise. To me, The Olympics represents everything that is still pure about sport and endeavour.
A green jacket is to golf what a gold medal is to Athletics, Gymnastics, Weightlifting, Swimming, Cycling, Volleyball, Archery…. Golf has been corporatised and monetised to a stage where even I, at 130th in the world, can enjoy a wonderful lifestyle. To include golf in The Olympics is almost insulting to the gymnast who earns very little, and sacrifices as much as any golfer.