Olympic debacle is latest mis-hit in golf’s round of poor publicity

Golf - British Open

Perhaps golf can cling to the notion of there being no such thing as bad publicity. For a sport supposedly, if erroneously, the sole domain of gin drinkers and those with mild manners, its recent propensity to mingle with controversy has been quite staggering.

The clear, dominating issue of recent months has surrounded golf’s return to the Olympic Games. What an unseemly, messy affair this has become. The unwillingness of so many of the world’s top golfers to participate in Rio easily overshadowed the buildup to this week’s Open Championship. Francesco Molinari took the number to 20, with the possibility still of more to come.

The sentiment from Rory McIlroy that his sport has no place in the Games turned heads globally. Ferocious criticism towards “myopic” male players has arrived from the chief executive of the Ladies European Tour. Lost in this melee is the fact that 10 of the world’s top 30 male tennis players will not participate in Rio. The tennis narrative, of course, is completely dominated by a quartet of players but while golf was always going to receive intense focus as the new kid on the Olympic stage, context is important.

It is difficult to make any argument for the Olympics harming golf and vice versa. What can be safely said is that the International Golf Federation has failed either in planning or in communication with regard to such a plethora of call-offs. Men’s professional golf did not coordinate nearly effectively enough in reference to scheduling.

Using Brazil as the location for an Olympic renaissance has comprehensively backfired. The IGF must surely turn to Jordan Spieth, who spoke so passionately about golf and the Olympics this week despite removing himself from the Rio equation, to make the case in person for continuation beyond the existing arrangement of 2020.

The benefits of inclusion are obvious, both to golf’s global reach and doping policy. The latter is secretive and, according to McIlroy, ineffective. Eight players from a 156-man field were urine-tested at last year’s Open, with even that statistic unbeknown to the R&A’s chief executive, Martin Slumbers, when he appeared for a painfully scripted media conference on Wednesday. Slumbers offered statements, not answers.

There are also misconceptions in the debate over what form golf should take in the Games, amateur being the most frequently stated one. When the International Olympic Committee laid out the welcome mat to golf in 2009, they were unquestionably seeking to capitalise on the status of Tiger Woods. Cynical? Perhaps, but a commercial no-brainer.

This also presumes every other Olympic sport is in the same position as the early 1900s, that true amateurs are commonplace. Even the top amateurs in golf are afforded a life of warm-weather training camps and global competition that blurs the line between themselves and professionals. Golf, it was also argued, should have diverted format from four rounds of stroke play. The IGF, in its defence, was cautious not to delve into the realms of gimmick.

The recurring sense is that golf is somehow passing up a glorious opportunity here. “For certain nations it could be transformational for the game,” says Pádraig Harrington, a three-times major champion. “You could certainly make a case for Rio 2016 being the most important moment in golf’s recent history and it could act as a tipping point for the sport in terms of reaching a new and different audience.”

Harrington’s comment was offered as part of an HSBC state of the game report, which presses home the value of Olympic golf. “Arguably golf has never been a more attractive proposition for a time-poor, young audience bombarded by myriad choices,” said Giles Morgan, HSBC’s head of global sponsorship. “Now is the time to engage them. Standing still is not an option.”

This rather cuts across other high-profile issues. The switch to satellite television broadcasting of the Open has been lucrative and, the R&A insists, beneficial in terms of appeal to a younger market.

The counterpoint, a strong one, is that the moving of such a marquee event away from a terrestrial channel could impinge upon the sport’s development. Only golf fans, surely, will be tempted by the Open on Sky.

Muirfield’s shameful refusal to admit female members also played a part in the headline flow. So, too, did Donald Trump’s redevelopment of Turnberry. The highly damaging perception, as endorsed by the dinosaurs in East Lothian, that golf is discriminatory or non-inclusive cannot be erased.

The rules shambles which overshadowed the conclusion to the US Open is similarly pertinent. Without going into the tiresome mechanics of that incident at Oakmont, it proved golf not only has a set of crazy rules but doesn’t even know how to implement them effectively. Kids won’t be bounding down to the local golf course having watched what transpired in such a significant tournament.

Another major is, meanwhile, in the process of piecing together its own storyline. While golf doesn’t need the Open at Troon for publicity, it may be overdue some of the positive variety.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Ewan Murray at Royal Troon, for The Observer on Saturday 16th July 2016 22.00 Europe/London

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010