As Paris 2024 approaches, Gary Lemke takes a closer look at golf at the Olympics

When LIV Golf arrived on the sport’s landscape, the initial wave of players read off the same hymn sheet. They were signing over to the Saudis to “grow the game”. Only much later, did some reluctantly admit it was for the money.

As someone who has made a career of following Olympic sports, I know that winning a gold medal at an Olympic Games is more important than winning a PGA (or LIV Golf) event. The debate is where it stands against the Majors. For me, it beats the men’s PGA Championship, as a start. And for the women, an Olympic medal is more prized than winning any of the other four Majors other than the Women’s Open.

I naively believed that by golf returning to the Olympics fold in 2016 after being off the programme since 1904 it would be an attraction. You know, 60 golfers in each of the men’s and women’s strokeplay event, comprising 34 countries in 2016 and 42 nations in 2020.

Growing the game to a global multisport three-billion audience, and all that.

Except, the top golfers (men in particular) weren’t interested. In 2016, they largely blamed the Zika virus – despite the fact no Olympic athlete contracted the virus in Rio – for their non-participation, while Tokyo 2020 had the (valid) excuse that Covid-19 was an inherent risk. Some were more honest: Tokyo cut into their (paid) Tour schedule.

They used scheduling as a convenient outlet, citing the proximity of the Majors to the Olympics. In 2016 the five highest-ranked players in the men’s field were Henrik Stenson (5), Bubba Watson (6), Rickie Fowler (8), Danny Willett (9) and Justin Rose (12). In Tokyo, Bryson DeChambeau and Jon Rahm tested positive for Covid-19 before the event, and the US produced four of the world’s top 10. Eight of the world’s top 20 were there. Progress, one might say.

Of course, we know the real reason for the stayaways – money. Or rather, the lack of it. Why compete at an Olympics, representing your country in a multicoded Games if there’s no money at stake? We even had golfers in Tokyo not wearing caps in the searing heat, presumably because they weren’t getting paid for doing so.

My minority view is that with 20-25 Majors being played between an Olympics surely golfers can forfeit one of those Majors and play for their country to promote the sport to different fans? You know, grow the game?

Four-time Major champion McIlroy answered. “That’s not my job,” he said. “My job is to play as well as I possibly can and behave in a way that promotes the sport while I’m winning championships.”

Yet, ask someone like the great Usain Bolt, or Michael Phelps, what they treasure more: Olympic gold or a world championship? They will react as if it’s April 1st.

Ashleigh Buhai, the 2022 Women’s Open champion, represented Team SA at Rio 2016. She withdrew from Tokyo because of the Covid-19 uncertainty. However, of Rio she said: “One of the things I loved was rubbing shoulders with and being around all these other extraordinary athletes who we never get to see. Most of them work their butts off for four years to get to this one race, and in a few seconds their dreams can be cut short. Whereas I competed, got on a plane the next week and went and played in Canada for $2.5-million. My life carried on. They had to wait another four years.

“It’s also really different because every week at a tournament you’re playing for something, whether it’s to make the cut or for a position. It’s a bit weird when you’re at the Olympics and if you’re out of the top three it’s like, what am I playing for now?”

But, that’s the Olympics for you. Brandon Stone and Jaco van Zyl represented Team SA in Rio. Our two leading contenders, Louis Oosthuizen and Branden Grace, made themselves unavailable.

Stone said: “People often ask me what was the best part about the experience. The answer is simple – the athletes’ Olympic Village. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Rafael Nadal, LeBron James or Brandon Stone, everyone is in the village. You get to meet all these different athletes, icons, in an environment where they are relaxed and having a great time. The energy was indescribable.”

Van Zyl tied 43rd (out of 60), Stone tied 55th. Neither received one dollar, but the experience was priceless.

One must remember that tennis only returned to the Olympic fold in 1988. The greatest women’s player, Serena Williams, won 23 Grand Slam singles titles. She also captured one Olympic singles gold. At the end of her career she said: “One of my favourite memories was winning gold [in London 2012]. My own gold medal.”

As for Paris and golf, we wait. In terms of scheduling, the men’s Open Championship finishes on 21 July. Golf at the Olympics starts 11 days later. That scheduling excuse goes out the window. Bird flu anyone?