By Stewart Grant (St. Marys Golf Member)
On a warm summer day in August 2016, a young Canadian boy with big dreams walks onto the 18th green at the St. Marys Golf & Country Club in St. Marys, Ontario. As he crouches down to survey the line on his 6-foot par putt, he pictures himself surrounded by a gallery several rows deep, while he imagines millions in their homes across the world watching this historic moment play out. This putt, he says to himself, is for an Olympic Gold Medal.
The 2016 Summer Olympic Games, to be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, will see the return of golf to the Olympics for the first time in 112 years. Interestingly, the Canadian golfers in Rio will enjoy special status, for they will be looking to defend the gold medal won by Richmond, Ontario native George Lyon in 1904.
George Lyon took an unusual path to Olympic glory, for he didn’t learn to play his sport until the age of 38. His Gold Medal came just eight years later, at the age of 46. It was truly a different time. For Lyon’s Medal Ceremony, imagine him standing on the podium in front of the Canadian Red Ensign flag during the playing of God Save the Queen.
Back in 1904, the field of golfers was comprised of only North Americans: 74 from the USA and 3 from Canada. In 2016, the field will be far more diverse. The top 15 players in the world will qualify automatically, subject to a maximum of four golfers for any one country. The remaining 45 spots in the field will go to the highest-ranked players from countries that don’t already have two golfers qualified.
Based on today’s Rankings, the United States would be represented by Tiger, Phil, Zach, and Dustin, while Canada would counter with Graham DeLaet of Saskatchewan and David Hearn of Brampton, Ontario. Excellent U.S. players such as Matt Kuchar, Bubba Watson, and Jordan Spieth could find themselves watching at home unless they can take one of those sought-after spots on the U.S. Olympic Team.
It is likely that over 32 nations will be participating in the men’s 60-player field alone, including Bangladesh, Finland, China, and Columbia. More so than any major golf championship, the Olympic golf event has the potential to capture the imaginations of millions of youth all across the world, even in non-traditional golfing areas.
As we know from Canadian Olympic history, any medal, a Gold, Silver or Bronze, is a symbol of national pride. For example, consider this list of dynamic Canadian figure skaters, none of which have won Gold but each of which has done the country proud by finding the podium at prior Olympics: Brian Orser, Elizabeth Manley, Elvis Stojko, and Joannie Rochette.
In golf, major champions are always remembered but second place finishers are quickly forgotten, except for a few exceptions which make the rule. The Olympic Golf Tournament will be unique this way. While winning the Gold Medal is the ultimate goal for any athlete, the Silver and Bronze medals are also celebrated and cherished. As bad as Jean van de Velde’s loss must have been at the 1999 Open Championship when he tripled the 18th at Carnoustie, if it had been at the Olympics he could at least find solace in bringing a silver medal home to France.
The Open Championship (aka British Open), with its diverse field of international players, is perhaps the best place to look for clues on how Olympic Golf could play out. In Olympic Year 2012, South Africa’s Ernie Els won the Claret Jug, followed by Australia’s Adam Scott in the Silver position and a pair of Americans in Tiger Woods and Brandt Snedeker sharing the bronze slot. In 2008, it would have been Padraig Harrington winning Gold for Ireland. Continuing this role-play back every four years to 1996, Ernie Els might have been considered one of the great Olympians of all-time. Ernie’s collection of hardware would have included Gold in 2012, Silver in both 2000 and 2004, and Bronze in 1996.
As discussed above, golf is now a worldwide game. It will be fascinating to see what countries will stand upon the podium, because the winning golfer could come from anywhere. Olympic Table Tennis, this is not. In that event, China has won 24 of the 28 Gold Medals ever awarded. South Korea won 3 Golds, while Sweden’s Jan-Ove Waldner, the “Mozart of Table Tennis”, reached the ping pong pinnacle in 1992’s Barcelona Games.
Only time will tell how important the Olympic Golf event will come in the overall landscape of the sport. The Masters golf tournament, which is now arguably the most popular of the four major golf championships, took time to develop and for its legendary status to flourish. Though the Masters began in 1934, the Green Jacket tradition didn’t start until 1949 and the concept of the modern golf Grand Slam (which includes the Masters) wasn’t adopted until 1960.
The Olympics are special because they only come along every four years, and because the entire world is watching. The pressure is intense and the stakes are high. Just ask the U.S. Women’s Hockey Team: four years is a long time to wait for another chance.
For those of us who are accustomed to the Masters, the US Open, the Open Championship, and the PGA Championship as the premier events in golf, this new idea of an Olympic golf event might take some getting used to.
However, I can see a day, perhaps ten or twenty years into the future, when a Canadian man or woman might find themselves with a 6 foot putt to win the Olympic Gold Medal in golf, and see this moment more than any other as the fulfillment of their lifelong dream.