Ricky Gervais had a biting comedic commentary that summed up the naysaying and negativity fueling social media. He likened Twitter to a man walking through the town square and seeing a flyer offering guitar lessons. “But I don’t (expletive) want guitar lessons!” the man rages, before dialing the advertised phone number to profanely scream as much at the guitar teacher.
He perfectly captured the essence of social media’s many mediocrities: the narcissistic belief that if it doesn’t matter to them, then it doesn’t matter, period. Hence they respond to tweets or stories with “Who cares?”, demonstrating the degree to which irony escapes the obtuse.
A similar sentiment has been in evidence to the halfway point of the Olympic golf competition, though it will likely diminish in the coming days. (Grumblers take predictable shots during men’s events but tone it down lest they be seen as unsupportive of the women’s game.)
There are plenty of fans for whom Olympics golf doesn’t much matter, and in some echo chambers declaring so is as much a groupthink litmus test as dismissing every piece of turf upon which Tom Fazio has set foot. Which isn’t to say their every criticism lacks merit.
The most common—and credible—knock on Olympic golf since it was reintroduced in Rio De Janeiro five years ago has been the format: the same bland diet of 72-hole stroke play that fans are force-fed most every other week. There are certainly ways to flavor things, like a mix of stroke play and match play, the introduction of a team component, or mixed-gender teams. Yet even this format criticism is grounded in self-absorption, an assumption that we are the intended audience for Olympic golf. And if we’re bored by 72-hole stroke play, who cares that it might be something new for the uninitiated?
Other raps against golf in the Games sound hollow.
Some contend that the worthiness of golf as an Olympic sport is determined not by the stature of its competitors but of those who stay home. Thus, when Dustin Johnson sat out these Games (twice) it was entered as evidence that no one else should bother either. This grasping at strawmen mindset would grade restaurants on the views of people who don’t eat there.
In a similar vein, I’ve heard it said that since professionals lack excitement the field should instead be comprised of amateurs. Would the competition in Tokyo have been improved if top-ranked amateur Keita Nakajima was chasing gold rather than his compatriot, Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama? It’s a risible notion. (Most of those who argue for amateurs would struggle to name a single one in the world’s top 10 who doesn’t play at the University of Texas.)
Amateur advocacy also ignores a pertinent fact: the International Olympic Committee admitted golf on condition that the world’s best compete. There was no caveat about the best who don’t get paid. The amateur ideal is a relic of past Olympiads, not an ambition for future ones.
Another assertion often trafficked is that if a gold medal isn’t the pinnacle of your sport, then your sport doesn’t belong in the Games. It’s an argument based in false equivalency. Novak Djokovic was willing to jeopardize a potential Grand Slam to compete in arduous conditions in Tokyo in pursuit of only the second ‘Golden Slam’ in tennis history. He didn’t pretend Olympic gold is the equal of the four Slams that define greatness in his sport, rather that it’s an exceptional complement to them, a valuable bonus. Golf is no different.
As the final round began in Tokyo, I asked Ty Votaw, vice-president of the International Golf Federation and a leading advocate for golf’s return to the Games, how week one had gone. He mentioned that IOC president Thomas Bach walked with golf industry leaders during the third round on Saturday. Waiting on a tee, England’s Paul Casey wandered over to chat. After Casey played on, Votaw turned to Bach and asked if an athlete had ever chatted with him during their actual competition.
“That has never happened to me in my life,” the Olympic chief replied. Bach won’t be the only one who leaves Tokyo with a positive memory of what happened at Kasumigaseki Country Club.
The function of the Olympics is not simply excellence but evangelism. It’s a forum to spread the gospel of golf, and that by definition means it’s not about core fans or countries. Governments often favor Olympic sports when it comes to public funding support, and that alone is reason enough to favor including it.
We can’t yet say whether golf in the Olympics grows the game. Perhaps someday we’ll learn that Rio or Tokyo inspired an unlikely medalist from a less celebrated golfing nation. (We’ve already seen one from Slovakia!)
What we do know is that golf in the Olympics does no harm, and there’s no legitimate reason to argue against its inclusion other than sheer contrariness. If you don’t care about it, fair enough. Jog on and let those who do care enjoy it. Don’t be like the dude who doesn’t want guitar lessons.
Published at Golfweek.com, August 1, 2021.