Golf leaders keen to keep golf in Olympics
Golf's global leaders are working behind the scenes to secure the sport's place in the Olympic lineup beyond 2020 despite 12 of the world's top 20 players controversially skipping Rio.
Whether a first Olympic golf crown since 1904 goes to a household name like British Open champion Henrik Stenson of Sweden or the likes of 318th-ranked Bangladesh flag-bearer longshot Siddikur Rahman, television ratings and staging a high-quality event are vital to golf's Olympic future.
"This week does mark a historic moment for golf," International Golf Federation (IGF) president Peter Dawson said Monday.
"The Olympic inclusion is the biggest 'grow the game' opportunity for golf. Growing the game has already begun, but we start in earnest on Thursday."
That's when Brazil's Adilson da Silva hits the first Olympic golf shot in 112 years to open the men's event. The 60-man field has no more than two per nation except for up to four players if they were in the top 15 when selections were made last month.
All of the world's top four, Jason Day of Australia, US duo Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth plus Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy said no to playing in Rio, a slap that still stings golf after its fight to get back into the Olympics.
"It's certainly not helpful," Dawson said. "But I think now we're looking forward. We're concentrating on those players who are here. They will always be Olympians, and whoever wins the gold medal and the silver and bronze will have something to carry with them the rest of their lives.
"I'm very confident golf's players over the coming Olympic Games will all come and play."
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) will consider the viability of every event in every sport next year. Television ratings and quality of field are only two of many factors involved, but they are big.
"The IOC will have a very specific methodology. What we have to do is make sure golf sticks as high up those criteria as possible," Dawson said.
"What would make these two weeks a success would be very high quality golf watched by people around the world on television. What we're hoping for is an exciting golf competition watched by millions of people."
Officials are not relying upon the event alone to solidify golf's place beyond Tokyo, working on IOC projects and programs as well.
"Golf needs to be a very good and supportive member of the Olympic family," Dawson said. "We're playing our part in the Olympic family, not just trying to do something well once every four years."
The IGF has added 30 member nations and seen others get government financial boosts since golf entered the Olympics.
"All of that is going to result in an expansion of accessible facilities for the public to use," Dawson said.
Anthony Scanlon, the IGF executive director, said he expects IOC members to understand about the absent stars, many of whom cited Zika virus concerns.
"We have an extremely strong field. You'll see some of the best golfers in the world there," he said. "(IOC members) are very well-informed people. It will take enough of them understanding the significant factors of why the sport belongs in the Olympic movement."
As stars stay away over concerns about the mosquito-carried Zika virus, which can cause illness and is linked to certain birth defects, Dawson hopes to create new golfers by showing off some of the world's best in a new frontier.
"Let's hope the bug bites, if that's not too incorrect a term," Dawson said.