04/28/2016

Golf’s reintroduction to the Summer Olympics came with mixed responses from the get-go. Over the last several weeks, those conversations have only heated up as more players removed themselves from Olympic contention.

Adam Scott, the former World No. 1, said that he would not play for Australia in Rio de Janeiro. Then South Africans Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel joined the group that won’t compete for Olympic glory. With Fiji’s Vijay Singh, a total of four major champions have now withdrawn from consideration.

Gary Player, countrymen to Oosthuizen and Schwartzel, has been the most prominent critic.

“I am sad and disappointed that several top players have withdrawn from the Olympic Games in Rio,” Player said in a statement he posted on twitter. “Players withdrawing hurt the game of golf.”

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Player’s displeasure strikes a deeper chord in his home country. Forget golf, from 1964 to 1988, South Africa was barred from competing in the Olympics due to Apartheid. For a competition that prides itself on being apolitical, regardless of how one feels about that tagline, that’s a severe punishment.

Player couldn’t have played even if golf was included in the Summer Games during his prime. At the same time, hundreds of South African athletes were denied the chance to participate in the world’s greatest athletic event.

Now, a couple of golfers are saying no thanks on their own accord.

So in a sense, there’s an emotional undertone to Oosthuizen and Schwartzel’s decision. Scott and Singh? Well, they’re just being practical and others will surely join them. The golf season is grueling as is. Let’s say you’re a top European or American player. The end of your year would look something like this: British Open, WGC-Bridgestone, PGA Championship, Summer Olympics, FedEx Cup Playoffs, Ryder Cup.

The Olympics as a whole might surpass the other events in prestige, but not in golf. This isn’t swimming, track and field, beach volleyball or gymnastics, all of which consider a gold medal the pinnacle of their respective sport.

And it’s not just golf in Brazil, which in itself is a daunting proposition. It’s the full Olympic experience. Players aren’t just going to head to the course and back to the village each day. They’ll mingle with other athletes and take in all of the events.

That’s a great opportunity. It’s also draining.

We haven’t even mentioned the shakiness of the Brazilian government (just take a look at the fallout of the 2014 FIFA World Cup) or the real threat of the Zika virus. Rio has been an outright mess at every turn. That won’t change in four months.

Let’s accept that golf will remain in the Olympics beyond this year. Forget the setting, it could be Athens this summer and not Rio. Players would still be justified in choosing their professional careers over Olympic aspirations.

Whether or not their withdrawals “hurt the game of golf,” as Player asserts, is up for debate. On one hand, more exposure of stars is always a good thing. And if someone like, say, Kiradech Aphibarnrat wins gold for Thailand it would draw more attention to the world game.

But let’s be honest. Jordan Spieth winning the gold medal would be cool, but it would mean less to the game than if he wins the Open Championship or PGA this summer. Ditto for Rory McIlroy. For them, it’s a neat event and nothing more.

There is a way to take advantage of golf’s place in the Olympics, while simultaneously growing the game.

Make it amateur only.

Think about it. Golf struggles to promote its up-and-comers in the mainstream sports world. Football, basketball, baseball and hockey have drafts and college levels of the game that draw significant attention. Most fans know at least passing information about the top prospects. Take, for example, this week’s NFL Draft. We know the names of the top athletes entering the league before they ever hold a jersey on stage.

In golf, few know who the next kid from Florida is, let alone the one from Southern Spain. The U.S. Amateur is great, as is the Walker Cup. Neither has the Olympic brand, though.

Let amateurs compete for gold medals and you’ll grow the game. Just imagine if Bryson DeChambeau went for gold last summer prior to launching his professional career. Instead, we didn’t hear much about one of the sport’s most intriguing characters until the Masters.

It’s just a thought. There’s still a lot to be said about golf’s place in the Olympics and that will only increase as we draw closer to Rio.