You could argue that golf needs another major championship or international competition like Jay Leno needs another automobile. They’ve already got four of the former and two of the latter on the professional level. Does golf really need the Olympics, too?
The answer is obvious: yes.
Every sport needs the Olympics. It’s as simple as that. If you don’t think so, just ask baseball and softball, which began trying to argue, wheedle and whine their way back into the Games even before they were voted off the Olympic island after Beijing. Softball needed the Olympics for legitimacy, and I’ve felt that the Olympics needed softball because it’s a great women’s team sport — one of the best. But sports work in gender-based pairs in the Games, and baseball never held up its end of the bargain, with the world’s best players unable to participate.
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Belatedly, baseball is promising to work it so that major leaguers can play in the Olympics. The game should have thought about that earlier, like when it was in the Games. It also should have had the decency to fill the relatively small Olympic stadiums it had to play in. If you can’t even half-fill stadiums at the Olympics, you don’t deserve to stick around.
That’s why baseball — and, sadly, softball — are gone. It’s also why golf and rugby are closer to being in (the IOC assembly will vote on it in Copenhagen in October). Rugby, you can bet, will send its very best to the pinnacle of competition. It will probably also sell more tickets, because it’s a bloody and delightfully violent collision sport played by people who refuse to wear helmets or even as much padding as soccer players wear.
And golf will send its best, too. Tiger Woods, who will be on the far side of 40 when golf joins the Games in 2016, already has said he wants in. We can only assume he’ll still be good enough in seven years to qualify. You can bet every other golfer in the world worthy of his or her tour card will feel the same way. That’s a great thing about golfers — they love to compete, especially against the best and in the most prestigious events.
And it’s clear from Tiger’s reaction that the Olympics will vault to the top of the prestige heap. That’s really saying something. It’s like a new flavor of ice cream — mango-chili-rum-ripple-fudge-acorn-chip — jumping ahead of vanilla and rocky road.
Men’s golf already has the Masters, the U.S. and British Opens and the PGA Championship, as well as the international team events, the Presidents and Ryder Cups. The women have their four majors along with the Solheim Cup.
But there’s always room for one more, especially one that comes with five rings and the ability to play for one’s country attached — even if the only official reward for the winner is a gold-plated medal, a bouquet of flowers and a check for zero dollars and a like number of cents. (Sponsors will certainly contribute to the bank accounts of the winners, but that’s beside the point; they do that for athletes in other sports, too.)
It doesn’t hurt that golf will sell tickets like few other sports. Even the IOC needs to sell tickets, especially premium ones. And the TV networks who pay the big money to show the games also need sports that will draw big audiences that boost the ratings and make those rights fees possible.
There’s nothing wrong with that. Money should not be the bottom line on life, but it never hurts to have enough to pay the mortgage and feed, clothe and educate the kiddies.
A lot of sports are going to have their jock strap in a knot — and we all know how painful that can be — over golf sashaying into the Games after just a few years of serious interest in participating. There are dozens of sports that have been banging on the Olympic door for years. Among them are the losers in the 2016 sweepstakes — squash, roller sports and karate — as well as such hugely popular pastimes as tug of war, hang-gliding, lawn bowling, billiards, and dance sport. I won’t even mention — although I guess I already am — bandy, wushu and korfball, whatever they are. (Hey, if you really want to know, that’s why God created Bing and Google.)
Some of the wannabes, such as regular bowling, can rightfully argue that they are pursued by millions of people in scores of countries and deserve to be in. But how many people are going to watch it? And how many will care? And outside of a few countries where bowling is genuinely popular, the world demand just isn’t there.
The others can argue that they’re just as good as some of the 26 Olympic sports that nobody really watches as it is. Put team handball, modern pentathlon, fencing, shooting and archery among those. But that’s not the point. The sports that are in are widely practiced and, with the exception of team handball, have ancient Olympic pedigrees. They’re kind of grandfathered in in a way that baseball and softball never were.
Golf doesn’t even have to argue for itself. It’s a premier sport played by heroes from most nooks and crannies of the world. It’s also older than most other sports and benefits from a reputation as the most honorable sport there is. Can you imagine soccer players calling fouls on themselves? Or baseball pitchers refusing to accept a strike call on a pitch that was clearly outside?
And the bottom line is that the IOC is a lot like a college athletic department. It supports a wide range of sports, some of them big money-makers and most big money-losers. It values them all and nobody argues that an archer doesn’t work just as hard and have just as much desire as Michael Phelps. It’s just that if you want to celebrate all those off-sports, you need to pay the bills. The Olympics don’t come cheap.
So, like college athletic departments depend on football and basketball to pay the bills for everything else, the IOC depends on swimming, track and field and soccer to pay its bills. And now, it adds golf, a sport with international stars who can sell tens of thousands of tickets a day for four days of competition.
The sport deserves to be there. The fact that it is so popular shouldn’t be held against it.