How To Make Olympic Golf Major

Injecting the current stroke play format with an NCAA-inspired team component. Plus, what the 2021 men's and women's teams might have looked like in Tokyo.

This newsletter is built around the majors and the golf calendar’s next biggest thing: the Ryder Cup. But even that team competition, as with this fall’s Solheim Cup, only involves a small portion of the world’s population.

Maybe that’s why so many had hope that Olympic golf could become a global gathering of the world’s best. But at 72-holes of stroke play and a small field not built entirely on merit, Olympic golf pales in comparison to the more established events with better fields.

Therefore the build up to making the Olympics hasn’t panned out as hoped because most of the news has been centered around who is not playing, with massive damage also done by viruses.

As I wrote about from Rio and after the successful return of golf in 2016, the comparison between the golf proceedings and every other sport I attended was profound. There was an urgency, a pressure and an intensity of playing for country that was hard to detect at the Olympic golf course.

Ultimately golf’s lack of Olympic spark comes down to avoiding match play and not having any legitimate team component to the proceedings. Throw in a dull qualifying process and a shakeup is needed. That was apparent after 2016 and I offered suggestions then. But one thing has changed since 2016 that inspired this proposal, something for your consideration while watching at hot, soft, fan-free Kasumigaseki.

As in the past with various efforts to propose a better Olympic format, these exercises in futility are stifled by an International Golf Federation refusing to address the weaknesses of the current Olympic golf format. It could be stubborness or worrying too much about the PGA Tour’s needs. Or maybe some have been on the job too long. It doesn’t help that their new President, Annika Sorenstam, is off playing the U.S. Senior Women’s Open this week.

If the Olympics were meant to grow the game, as we’ve been told ad nauseum, then we all know team golf with a match play component would show the world just how thrilling the sport can be. Instead, we have the WGC Kasumigaseki this week. Even if there had been fans and a better field, it still lacks the potential for drama until the last nine holes.

But should the IGF decide not to use Zika or COVID-19 as an excuse, maybe display an open mind to the obvious need for a team component, there might be an approach that works. Because with the next two venues courses already well known to golf fans—and very private clubs—the format had better sing or else golf will be replaced by All Fails Skateboarding where the judges score based on the cringe factor of your falls.

So first I must lay out the constraints cited by IGF officials over the years when sticking to the current format of 60 men and 60 women playing 72-holes of stroke play:

  • The IOC is concerned about bed space. Keeping the number at 60 addresses this. However, as we already know from Rio, most top professional golfers will not stay in the Olympic Village. In Paris they’ll stay closer to the course near Versailles. In Los Angeles a few might want to experience UCLA dorm living but most would rather stay in the guest house of a $25 million mansion around the corner from Riviera. You know, staying with a host family.

  • The IOC supposedly expects a format recognized for determinig important championships. Sadly, 72-holes of stroke play is all golf knows but we do have the Ryder Cup, Solheim Cup and another event I’ll get to in a second.

  • The IGF does not want to keep players in competition too long for fear they will not be energized to chase FedEx and CME Globe points.

There is one positive to keep in mind: the IOC has no known concern about giving out more medals.

It’s those damn beds they’re worred about, not a pricey chunk of medal with an elaborate design. Go figure.

So where does that leave us?

Stealing the NCAA’s wildly successful format switch to a stroke/team match play combination. Yep, rip it off! So brilliant is the concept, it’s been elevated to Olympic status.

To review, the NCAA men’s and women’s golf moved to its stroke/team match play setup in 2015. After some early complaints about determining a champion differently than the regular season, it’s been deemed a success. Yes, it was made for TV but who cares when the golf is compelling, match play is involved, and the golfers shine under a pressure they are not used to? Especially when Pepperdine wins.

The NCAA format:

  • Three 18-hole rounds of stroke play competition. Following the third round, the field for both the men and women are cut to the top 15 teams and top nine individuals not on an advancing team. 

  • The fourth round of stroke play crowns the individual national champion and cuts the field to the top eight teams for match-play, seeded in order of stroke play finish.

  • A knockout match play competition commences to determine a national champion.

I would take the above and tweak it for Olympic golf like this:

  • Continue the current qualification system for individuals. Two max per country unless ranked inside the world top 15. That’s when you a country can send four.

  • Prior to the Games, determine the eight best teams of five players based on the official world rankings. This adds competition and drama prior to the Games for countries to qualify as a team. All five players get in the Games and can compete for individual Gold.

  • At the Games, play 54 holes and cut to the top teams plus the top nine individuals not on an advancing team. Determine the individual medalists, give out medals, and move to team match play the next day.

Now here is where I’d tweak the NCAA concept.

  • Instead of the top eight teams going to three days of knock-out match play, only have six or four teams advance. That cuts a day and makes the stroke play meaningful to ensure players grind to the very end.

  • Assuming six of eight teams qualify for match play. Then the top two seeds get to sit out the morning of a 36-hole first day. But if that’s too grueling, then a four-team semis and finals commences, with the losing semi-finalists playing for the Bronze.

  • This means six days maximum of competition for twenty players. Four days for most who come to the games. Check out for them is noon Monday!

What are the perks of this compared to the current format?

  • It retains an individual stroke play event that now includes more layers of drama in shaping the team match play.

  • A smaller but still dramatic team match play event involving nationalities on an international stage.

  • Developing countries without enough players inside the world top 300 can still compete as individuals.

  • There would be a more compelling run-up to the Games as players jockey for position to make the Games or play to get their teams in on ranking points (Scotand and France would have been jockeying this summer and Robert MacIntyre’s Open performance could have put his country over the top).

  • Players would be less likely to sit out the games or ceremonies when part of a team.

  • Captains would assume a prominent role in representing players and teams, taking pressure of players.

  • The format would produce more medalists traveling the world after the Games to spread the gospel of golf and the Olympics.

So who would have been the top eight teams in 2021?

I went down the men’s rankings and disregarded players who have traditionally opted out (Adam Scott, Dustin Johnson). A team format would compel most or all eligible players to appear.

If this week’s rankings were to be used, here are the eight men’s teams filling out the field on top of those who qualify as individuals.

The average world ranking is next to the country:

  1. USA (Average OWGR ranking: 4) - Johnson (2), Morikawa (3), Thomas (4), Schauffele (5), DeChambeau (6)

  2. England (28) - Hatton (14), Fitzpatrick (21), Casey (22), Westwood (29), Fleetwood (34)

  3. Australia (43.8) - Smith (28), Leishman (36), Scott (43), Herbert (52), Lee (60)

  4. South Africa (46.6) - Oosthuizen (8), Higgo (41), Bezuidenhout (46), Grace (64), Schwartzel (74)

  5. South Korea (82.4) - Im (27), Siwoo Kim (55), Lee (63), Joohhyung Kim (119), An (148)

  6. Spain (97.8) - Rahm (1), Garcia (51), Tarrio Ben (126) , Otaegui (149), Bello (162)

  7. Canada (116) - Conners (35), Hughes (53, Hadwin, (112), Taylor (168), Pendrith (212)

  8. Scotland - (149.2) Macintyre (48), Laird (114), Hill (167), Syme (206), Warren (206)**

Nations just missing out (but their two highest ranked individuals still would qualify):

  • France (153.8) Perez (44), Rozner (89), Brun (185), Langasque (215), Lorenzo-Vera (236)

  • Italy (208) Migliozzi (72), Molinari (151), Paratore (203), Laporta (283), Molinari (329)

  • Mexico (316.2) Ancer (23), Ortiz (61), Diaz (343), De Jesus Rodriguez (575), Becerra (579)

  • Northern Ireland (364.4) McIlroy (13), McDowell (194), Caldwell (235), Sharven (604), Hoey (776)

  • Ireland (366.8) Lowry (40), Power (115), Harrington (152), Kearney (510), McBride (1017)On the women’s side, USA and Korea dominate the Rolex Rankings and would be overwhelming favorites. Where else can you get that kind of profound analysis?

On the women’s side, USA and Korea dominate the Rolex Rankings and would be overwhelming team favorites. Where else can you get that kind of profound analysis?

Anyway, the depth is not as strong on the women’s side after the top eight. But hey, how else will countries be encouraged to develop?

  1. Korea (Avg Rolex Rank: 8.6) Jin Young Ko (2), Inbee Park (3), Hyo-Joo Kim (5), Min Ji Park (15), So Yeon Ryu (18)

  2. United States (9.6) Nelly Korda (1), Kang (6), Thompson (11), Jessica Korda (13), Ewing (17)

  3. Japan (32.4) Hataoka (9), Inami (27), Furue (30), Suzuki (42), Koiwai (54)

  4. England (63) Hull (35), Reid (38), Hall (53), Ewart Shadoff (90), Law (99)

  5. Thailand (67.2) Ariya Jutanugarn (22), Moriay Jutanagarn (34), Suwannapura (81), Thitikul (86), Anannarukarn (113)

  6. Australia (72.8) Lee (14), Green (17)***, Oh (102), Kirk (109), Kyriacou (122)

  7. Sweden (125.8) Nordqvist (50), Sagstrom (74), Lindberg (157), Strom (166), Hedwall (182)

  8. Germany (187.4) Popov (24), Masson, (65), Cowan 195), Harm (315), Hausmann (338)

On the outside looking in:

  • Canada (451.8) Henderson (7), Sharp (149), Leblanc (321), Lee (797), Lee-Bentham (985)

Injuries and politics could be spoilers in this scenario. But a player choosing not to play and causing their teammates not to qualify? Now that’s peer pressure.

Tension, edge, excitement and national pride should be what the Olympics are about. They should be major. But different than the majors.

What do you think?

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**After hitting send I was reminded how, barring Scotland or Northern Ireland passing independence referendums, those two would be part of Team Great Britain. That means a squad of McIlroy, Hatton (14), Fitzpatrick (21), Casey (22), Westwood (29) while getting France into the team portion. The women’s team would not be changed.

***I missed Hannah Green for Team Australia, lowering their Rolex average to 72.8.