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Friday, June 24, 2016

Strengthening the Olympic Golf Field

Yesterday I wrote about some of the Olympic concerns affecting golfers and why so many seem to be saying "no, thanks" to the Games. It was late at night when I finished the post and my mind was tired, so I didn't always go into depth about the effects of these concerns. But you can already see how they are shaping a lot of the dialogue:
  • For example, when Graeme McDowell withdrew Thursday with Zika concerns over his pregnant wife. How could the unknown future cost of Zika exposure affect your child's or your spouse's future?
  • Or when traditional Olympic athletes say they don't want athletes at the Games who don't want to be there. What do you expect from athletes whose careers are defined by the Olympics? Tiger Woods is currently suffering the effects of winning at any cost. What risks might he have been willing to take if he only got one chance every four years at a major, and that one chance might be his only chance?
  • The concern over an overcrowded schedule is the flipside of the 'get one chance' Olympic athlete. If I'm going to risk my health to get one big prize, is the Olympic gold really the best prize for a golfer? As things stand, I honestly don't think it is.
I'd like to address that last one. Yesterday I questioned how valuable an Olympic gold would be when valued against a major. Today I'd like to look at some potential ways to narrow that gap by improving the strength of the field.

As things are structured right now, there are 60 golfers in each gender's field. These represent, on average, somewhere between 25 and 35 countries. The International Golf Federation website describes their eligibility this way:
The IOC has restricted the IGF to an Olympic field of 60 players for each of the men’s and women’s competition. The IGF will utilise the official world golf rankings to create the Olympic golf rankings as a method of determining eligibility. The top-15 world-ranked players will be eligible for the Olympics, with a limit of four players from a given country. Beyond the top-15, players will be eligible based on the world rankings, with a maximum of two eligible players from each country that does not already have two or more players among the top-15.
In addition, the host country gets one male and one female participant if they are otherwise ineligible.

I understand that the IGF wants to keep any one nation from having a disproportionate number of players in the Games, but in doing so they completely ignored field strength. Olympic athletes are, by definition, supposed to be the best in the world. But since the IGF criteria for participation eliminates the majority of the best players in the world rankings, there is no way the Olympic gold medalist can possibly lay claim to being 'the best in the world'.

Can you say 'just an exhibition'?

So how do we fix this?

1) At the very least, the Olympic fields MUST allow the Top15 in the world rankings to play, regardless of what country they come from. That is the minimum you can do. Otherwise your field isn't even as strong as the Hero World Challenge.

If one of those Top15 players is unavailable -- for example, #3 Inbee Park might not be able to play because of her hand injury -- then #16 automatically qualifies, and it doesn't matter what countries they represent. In this case, Gerina Piller would be her replacement -- an American replacing a South Korean. That is irrelevant -- we want the 15 best players available to ensure the strongest possible field.

What if that means one country has ten players in the Games? Then so be it. If one country dominates the game that much, then that country must be beaten in order to claim the 'best in the world' title. Again, as things now stand, South Korea would have seven in the women's field, the US would have six in the men's field. But now you have the truly dominant players in these fields, and you MUST beat the best to get the gold.

Please note that these Top15 make up only a quarter of the entire field. You could still have just as many countries represented as in the current eligibility requirements, but the fields are substantially stronger.

2) Go to a match play format. I know this was rejected because it was considered too cumbersome. But team match play might be the best way to ensure a real competition and build excitement for the event.

I'd go to two-player teams, and I'd expand the Top15 to a Top16. Every player in the Top16 would play, and the teams would be constructed this way:
  • If a country has only one player in the Top16, that player would team up with the next highest player from their country outside the Top16.
  • If a country has two players in the Top16, they form a team.
Now it gets interesting:
  • If a country has three or more players in the Top16, you divide the number in half and round up. For example, three players means you get two teams and the top two players from that country head up the teams. In the examples I gave above, South Korea would have four female teams and the US would have three male teams. You get the extra player for the final team from outside the Top16.
But the second member of those teams is a matter of choice. Let's say you have three players in the Top16, so you get two teams. The two top players must be on separate teams, but the top player can decide to team up with the lowest-ranked player on the team if he (or she) so desires. This allows for a little choice in chemistry.

I really like the idea of making the match play event solely alternate shot (or foursomes, if you prefer that term) so the team aspect REALLY stands out. And bear in mind that such a two-player team match play event could include twice the number of individual golfers without seriously affecting pace of play. It would also be much more exciting.

You would start with either 32 teams (64 total players) or 64 teams (128 players) -- the first would take five days of play, the second would take six days. You divide into groups of four teams for pool play. Here's how it would work:
  • For 32 teams:
    Eight groups of four teams for three days of pool play. Top two teams from each group go to single elimination. Day four has 36 holes, cutting the 16 to 8 (morning) and then the 8 to 4 (evening). Day five also has 36 holes, cutting the 4 to 2 (morning) and then having the Gold medal and Bronze medal matches that afternoon.
  • For 64 teams:
    Sixteen groups of four teams for three days of pool play. Top team from each group goes to single elimination. Day four cuts 32 to 16. Day five has 36 holes, cutting the 16 to 8 (morning) and then the 8 to 4 (evening). Day six also has 36 holes, cutting the 4 to 2 (morning) and then having the Gold medal and Bronze medal matches that afternoon.
Yes, these are longer than the four-day medal play that we'll be playing this time. But this is the Olympics, it's supposed to be a challenge. 'Best in the world', remember?

3) Eliminate the world rankings entirely and institute national tryouts, the way other sports do it. Yes, this is a radical solution but I think it's probably the best for the Olympic Games. It certainly fits the spirit of the Games.

Let's find the best for this event with an open competition. Let's have local and regional qualifiers, culminating in a national qualifier. Open it to the pros and amateurs alike. If you want to get players who WANT to go to the Olympics, this is the way.

And just imagine the potential teams for a match play Olympics event. Suppose pro Dustin Johnson has been playing some rounds with amateur Maverick McNealy and the two really like their chemistry, so they enter the qualifiers as a team. You're NEVER going to get a team like that with the current system!

There are any number of ways that the luster of the Olympic gold medal can be enhanced among golfers, but it has to start with a stronger field. When you have four major events every year with stronger fields than a single Olympic event, there really is no competition.

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