Golf at the Rio Olympics: More opportunity than inconvenience

Justin Rose Charley Hull and Jordan Spieth
Justin Rose, Charley Hull and Jordan Spieth - three likely golfing Olympians

Calendars suggest a few more weeks until the new year but professional golfing schedules know otherwise.

As far as they are concerned it is already 2016 and we are now into a season that promises to be like no other in living memory. This, principally, is because of golf's return to the Olympics next August.

Players are not just competing for Ryder Cup, FedEx Cup and Race to Dubai points. They are also trying secure rights to represent their countries in Rio. The prospect of playing in the first Olympic golf tournaments since the St Louis Games of 1904 has become a central part of the golfing narrative. Top stars are jockeying for position in qualifying tables, while adjusting to the conventions and rules that go with being an Olympian.

"The drug testing is going to be a big challenge," Great Britain team leader Jamie Spence told BBC Sport. "The players are going to have to make sure they have their whereabouts known.

Great Britain Team Leader Jamie Spence
Great Britain team leader Jamie Spence sees the Olympics as part of a quest to broaden golf's appeal

"It's going to be a huge new thing for them. They are going to have to comply like all the other athletes do."

In the years since golf declared its interest in becoming an Olympic sport it has been changing its ways and adopting a more modern outlook. The leading tours have introduced their own doping programmes while governing bodies such as the R&A and Augusta National finally recognised they could no longer be male-only organisations.

Golf is now living by the rules of the sporting world at large. These have been welcome developments despite an absence of universal approval within the game.

Australia's Adam Scott, for one, is no fan of Olympic golf. The former world number one sees it as nothing more than an exhibition and scheduling inconvenience. By refreshing contrast, the current top dog, American Jordan Spieth, views going for gold as akin to playing a fifth major.

Three-time major winner Nick Price
"Does the Olympics need golf? Yes, I think so. Does golf need the Olympics? I'm not sure."
Click here to listen to the full interview

"Just competing in the Olympics, just walking in the opening ceremony, staying in the village, meeting these incredible athletes from around the world - hopefully that's something I'll be able to experience next August," the 22-year-old enthused.

"Winning a gold medal has got to be up there now, in my mind, with winning a major championship.

"I think this year we're going to approach it as a fifth major and we're going to prepare like it is."

Spieth will be part of a strong American team in Rio. The top 15 in the men's and women's qualifying tables are guaranteed a place at the Games, up to a maximum of four per country.

The rest of the 60-player fields for each event are made up of the leading two players from each country that does not already have two qualifiers when the qualifying period ends on 11 July.

Olympic golf course in Rio
The Olympic golf course in Rio - GB team leader Jamie Spence calls it "really, really interesting"

According to the current standings, Justin Rose (fifth) and Danny Willett (14th) would be Britain's men's representatives while in the women's competition Charley Hull (21st) and Catriona Matthew (30th) would wear British colours.

Spence has already visited Rio to check the pristine course that will stage both 72-hole strokeplay tournaments.

The 52-year-old veteran of 463 European Tour events was pleasantly surprised by the Gil Hanse-designed layout.

"Contrary to reports, it's a great design and it's in really good condition with plenty of grass on it," he told BBC Sport.

"There are no tees on the course. You are either on the fairway or in the scrub.

"You just sort of tee off on the fairway, next to the previous green. It's really, really interesting and the bunkers are well placed.

"I went there expecting a four out of 10, hearing everything I'd heard, and I came away thinking 'this is a really good eight and a half, nine'."

It is welcome news for players who have been rethinking schedules to cope with the shoe-horning of the Olympic tournaments into the busiest part of the golfing calendar.

Justin and Kate Rose
England's Justin Rose is an Olympics enthusiast and says his wife Kate regretted her sport missing out on Olympic status

In the men's game there will be only one week between the last two majors of the year, the Open at Royal Troon and the US PGA at Baltusrol.

"Yes, there is a lot of upset and upheaval in the world of golf, which some players aren't that keen on," Spence admitted. "But it's very important that the Olympics has prime spot, which it's going to have in early August."

There is at least one British player who has privately expressed strong reservations about the prospect of becoming an Olympian but he is in a minority and those closest to qualifying are full of enthusiasm for Rio.

"For me it's a huge opportunity," Rose told BBC Sport. "My wife Kate is a former European champion gymnast in sports acrobatics, which was never recognised [as an Olympic sport].

"But she hoped one day it would be, so the Olympics for her was always a dream and a goal. In my house it is a big deal and it's definitely a goal of mine to represent Team GB and go there and win a medal."

Spence has been struck by Rose's obvious enthusiasm. "He was talking to me about this six, seven months ago. That's all he wanted to talk about - Danny Willett, as well.

"Catriona and Charley are really excited. I think for the women it's going to be a really big deal.

Catriona Matthew
Scotland's Catriona Matthew is in line to qualify for the British women's team at Rio

"It is going to give them a massive platform, a massive audience and all of them I have spoken to are incredibly excited."

Spence believes men's golf needs a fifth major away from the US. And the Kent professional thinks the Olympics will only help in this regard.

"If, say, an Indian was leading, you'd get a massive audience in India," he said. "They're going to see a different game on TV."

The biggest criticism is the staid choice of 72-hole strokeplay. Spence feels the International Golf Federation should have been more imaginative.

"I think they could have gone two rounds of strokeplay to qualify and then a 16-player matchplay at the weekend," he said.

"I would have liked to have seen a gold medal match on the Sunday afternoon and the third- and fourth-place game would actually mean something because they are playing for a medal.

"Maybe after this initial burst they might look at that and come up with something different. I hope they do."

Tokyo Olympic games golf course
Tokyo's course for the 2020 Games is already determined

It is vital golf proves itself as a spectacle in Rio. The game is guaranteed to be part of the Tokyo Games in 2020 but could simultaneously find itself bidding farewell to the Olympic family.

Golf will need to survive a 2017 vote on whether it should retain Olympic status beyond the Japanese Games. Were it to lose out, the sport would suffer a massive blow to its international prosperity.

As Spence says: "For the game to grow it's got to be a success.

"We've got to get out of this fuddy-duddy old man's image. Look how fit the modern-day golfer is these days, the way they work out - men and women.

"It's a game worthy of being an Olympic sport," he added. "You have to have that patience, that mental dexterity, keeping calm under pressure but you also need the power and touch.

"I think it ticks all the boxes for an Olympic sport."

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