x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Golf a handicap at Olympics

When he reluctantly relinquished the International Olympic Committee's presidency at the age of 80 in 2001, Juan Antonio Samaranch's most bitter regret was his continued failure to entice golf back into the ever burgeoning Olympic family.

Ireland's Rory McIlory, shown here after his success in this year's Dubai Desert Classic, would much rather win  one of golf's four majors than an Olympic medal, says columnist Robert Philip.
Ireland's Rory McIlory, shown here after his success in this year's Dubai Desert Classic, would much rather win one of golf's four majors than an Olympic medal, says columnist Robert Philip.

When he reluctantly relinquished the International Olympic Committee's presidency at the age of 80 in 2001, Juan Antonio Samaranch's most bitter regret was his continued failure to entice golf back into the ever burgeoning Olympic family. "His Excellency" (a title he so regally bestowed upon himself) had made Olympians of the basketball superstars Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson and the tennis champions Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf, but Tiger Woods remained tantalisingly beyond the greedy gravitational pull of his five-ringed circus.

Every time the besotted Samaranch came a wooing, golf's officialdom ever so graciously turned down his proposal, offering men's and women's amateur team events as a compromise. "Who needs amateurs?" you could almost hear the outraged El Presidente sneer. "This is the Olympics: bring me Tiger!" Perhaps it was under the gentle persuasion of club manufacturers or clothing companies - given Woods' US$100 million (Dh367m) contract it is difficult to imagine anyone other than Nike being invited to design the US team wardrobe - but, sadly as I see it, the sport has finally been talked round.

After an absence of 112 years, golfers will again compete under the Olympic flame come Rio de Janeiro 2016. Tiger will be 40 by then and, assuming he is still the dominant force in the game, it is easy to picture him serving as flag bearer when the Stars and Stripes enters the Olympic Stadium during the Opening Ceremony. But can you really imagine him queuing up with his tray in the self-service cafeteria in the athletes' village?

I think not: he and his fellow millionaires who are accustomed to renting luxury accommodation within a short stroll of the first tee - or at the very least within a brief helicopter ride - will not be expected to scoff their egg and chips in the gawping midst of assembled archers, synchronised swimmers and mountain bikers. And that is the main reason that golfers (plus, tennis players, footballers and the giants of the basketball court for that matter) have no place in the Games.

Competing in the Olympics should represent the pinnacle of your chosen sport. The Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, for instance, can break countless world records and win a stream of world championship titles, but nothing else he achieves will ever be as precious as the three gold medals he won at the Beijing Games. Will Tiger, Rory McIlroy, Camilo Vallegas or whoever feel the same sense of achievement? No way: they already have four glittering prizes at which to aim - the Masters, British Open, US Open and US PGA Championship - and although Tiger has voiced his support of Olympic golf in public, just ask him in private if he would value a gold medal as highly as a Green Jacket or a Claret Jug.

When the American athlete Jesse Owens, the stand-out performer in the 1936 Berlin Games and the ultimate Olympian, was informed by an interviewer that the so-called Olympic spirit had been snuffed out by successive boycotts, bribery and corruption, doping scandals and the like, he famously replied: "The young people that box and fence and swim and run and shoot and do all these things for the next 15 days have given up four years of their lives to win a gold medal.

"Hardly any of them will actually win anything but that doesn't matter. When they go home to their hamlets and villages and towns, and mothers and fathers and sweethearts and wives, they can all say one thing with great pride: 'I broke bread with the rest of the world'." Repeat Owens' moving words to yourself: "I broke bread with the rest of the world." To Tiger Woods - and quite understandably - it has to be said, the Olympic golf tournament in Rio would be nothing more than an unappetising crumb sandwiched between the feast of golf's four majors.

Toronto's George Lyon, an early day mix of Lee Trevino and John Daly, won the last Olympic golf gold medal, at St Louis in 1904. An all-round athlete who competed in baseball, tennis, cricket and held the Canadian pole vault record for the best part of a decade, Lyon, 46, had taken up golf only eight years earlier. With his curiously idiosyncratic swing (as one writer described it: "he looks like he is heaving a coal bag off the back of a truck"), Lyon drew sniggers from the American galleries on the first tee on the opening day but long before the end of the tournament he had won their admiration and affection for the power of his game and his relaxed manner. Lyon ambled along the fairways humming, whistling and cracking jokes with the spectators, and following his victory in the final against US Amateur Champion Chandler Egan, arrived for the medal ceremony walking on his hands. He was as honourable as he was eccentric, however. When he arrived in London to defend his title in 1908, Lyon discovered that the leading Americans had refused to make the Atlantic sea crossing (as the British had done four years earlier). Adding to the shambolic nature of the affair, the Games' organisers had arranged for the golf event to be staged at precisely the same time as the British Amateur Championship was being held at Royal St George's. Even to the golfers of a century ago, the prospect of an Olympic medal could not compare with competing in a real championship such as the British Amateur Championship so, consequently, the English and Scottish players also refused to enter. Finding himself the only competitor and despite the efforts he had made as defending Olympic champion, as champion by default Lyon refused to accept the offered medal.

@Email:rphilips@thenational.ae