Golfers representing 35 countries are teeing it up this week in Tokyo – a number substantially larger then on the weekly stops of the PGA and European Tours – as golf leaders relish a golden chance to grow the game worldwide.
With millions of viewers tuning in to Olympic golf, some witnessing the sport for the first time, and other avid fans to see stars like Rory McIlroy and Hideki Matsuyama attired in the colors of their nations, the Olympic stage is a wonderful showcase of the sport. Also piquing curiosity are lesser known players from less traditional golf countries, like Poland and the Philippines, embracing their opportunity over the four men’s rounds this week and four women’s rounds to come.
International Golf Federation executive director Antony Scanlon elaborates upon the tremendous opportunity for golf in Tokyo, and how it may drive the sport’s continued development and strive for universality.
“We’re hoping the performances of our athletes and the way we’ve worked towards and presented this sport on television, with the help of OBS, that we’ll get new interest and these people will become fans to some extent,” Scanlon tells Around the Rings.
“I think everybody is seeing golf through different eyes now and that’s the beauty of being at the Olympic Games,” says the veteran Australian sports official. “We’re using this as our opportunity to open the window to people and say ‘here is a sport that everybody can participate in, it’s inclusive, and why don’t you come and try it’.
“One of our goals from the Olympic Games exposure is to bring our sport to more women and to a younger audience.”
Scanlon commends the many Japanese officials, organizers and volunteers, assisting the IGF this week at Kasumigaseki Country Club. The IGF’s mission to deliver the tournament is also aided by its seven key delivery partners – comprised of the various international tours and governing bodies – to ultimately make Olympic golf’s second shot in five years a resounding success.
“Their knowledge, love and passion for the sport has been evident in the volunteers and paid staff. You can see their pride to have the best golfers here, and the reigning Masters champion competing and playing so well,” Scanlon says, referring to the 29-year-old Matsuyama, who is just one stroke behind American Xander Schauffele entering Sunday’s fourth and final round.
“You could say this is the biggest golf tournament that Japan has ever held and they realize it,” he adds.
Japan’s love of the game is further evidenced by the fact there are more golf courses in the country than all of the remainder of Asia combined.
Tokyo 2020 has brought a more positive approach and enthusiasm among the pro golfers, albeit dampened by the one-year postponement of the Games due to COVID-19, a stark contrast from Rio 2016, five years previous. Many players wavered about traveling to and participating in Brazil. More than 20 top pros opted out, including McIlroy, Matsuyama and Jordan Spieth, citing fears over the Zika Virus. It has been a somewhat different narrative this time around.
“Obviously, this is only the second tournament for golf in the Olympics – I personally think that golf, as the years go on, will grow and get bigger and bigger in the Olympics,” said Shane Lowry of Ireland, the 2019 British Open champion sitting four shots off the lead. “There have been quite a few withdrawals for this one and there was quite a few withdrawals for the last one. I think it will mean a lot more and more to people as the years go on.”
Players in the compact field of 60 have raved about the pristine East course conditions at Kasumigaseki despite the lack of fans and multiple lightning and weather delays over the first few rounds. They appear to be enjoying unique Olympic experiences, some residing with athletes from other sports in the Olympic Village.
Mexico’s Carlos Ortiz, also in contention two shots off the lead, chose to stay with his fellow Olympians in the Olympic Village.
“It’s been unbelievable - I almost stayed in a hotel and I would have regretted that so much,” Ortiz said. “I’m staying with a group of boxers and one of the guys won his fight yesterday, as I was watching. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Scanlon expresses his excitement ahead of Sunday’s final round as a respectable number of the sport’s marquee names have risen near the top. Undoubtedly, all of Japan’s attention will be focused upon Matsuyama’s every swing, as he plays in the final group alongside Great Britain’s Paul Casey and the one-shot leader Schauffele.
“Players will really have to attack to climb up the leaderboard to get to the top three, and ultimately the gold medal,” Scanlon says. “It will be very exciting.”
Growing the Game
The IGF currently consists of 151 member federations from 146 countries, representing more than 60 million people playing the game, numbers that have increased over recent years.
Among the IGF’s mission, views and values is not only to represent golf within the Olympic and Paralympic movements, but also to encourage the game’s international growth.
“I think there are two facets to growing the game,” Scanlon says. “One is growing the interest among fans and to get as many people interested in our sport and that’s the beauty of the Olympic Games.
“We have a huge audience watching over the last few days. And statistics show that about 60% of the people don’t normally watch golf or haven’t watched golf before.
“The next step from becoming fans is to start to participate... that is sort of the opportunity we’re creating for our members to capitalize on the interest.
“We’re seeing right across the world increases in our junior participation and it’s a wonderful sport to play as a family.”
IGF president Sorenstam’s anticipated arrival in Tokyo
Annika Sorenstam is turning back the clock this week at the U.S. Senior Women’s Open at Brooklawn Country Club in Fairfield, Connecticut. The 50-year-old Swedish golf legend held a one-stroke lead entering the weekend rounds.
Sorenstam was elected by the IGF board members and assumed the federation’s presidency on January 1st, replacing Peter Dawson. Both Dawson and Sorenstam were pivotal in facilitating golf’s return to the Olympics after a 112-year absence.
Scanlon informs that Sorenstam will travel to Tokyo upon conclusion of the U.S. tournament, in time for the first round of the women’s Olympic tournament on Wednesday.
“It’s pretty damn cool having a president that is actively playing,” Scanlon says. “In terms of her commitments she would have attended the ASOIF general assembly and IOC Session, but couldn’t because of COVID.”
Sorenstam, who tallied 89 worldwide victories and was a three-time U.S. Women’s Open champion, retired from pro golf in 2008, culminating an illustrious 15-year Hall of Fame career.
Scanlon says Sorenstam’s presence in Tokyo will finally allow her to meet IOC members throughout next week’s four-day women’s event.
“It’s fantastic to have someone of her stature and knowledge to give perspective on the athletes experience,” Scanlon says.
“Annika is the perfect president to take on the foundations that Peter Dawson laid and improve upon those to become even better.
“She is as committed as president as she was as an athlete, so we could not ask for anything better.”
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