Date: August 23, 2016
Author: Mike Clayton

Clayton: Great Games, course and future

The Olympic gold medal for golf will never be the pinnacle of the game for the best male players; nor probably for the best women but it’s more likely given the state of women’s major championship golf.

That a business selling expensive water in plastic bottles could acquire major status by pouring millions into an event in France is telling and the ANA Championship in Palm Springs has had a few different names over the years depending on the corporation writing the cheques.

Only relatively recently has the Women’s British Open become a major championship and its history tells none of the story of the development of the women’s game as The Open Championship has done for men’s golf for almost a century and a half.

The golf in Rio this past fortnight, though, surely exceeded every hope of those who sought to have the game included in the Olympics and did something to blunt the suggestions of those who thought golf didn’t belong and was little more than an exhibition.

From my observation, every player embraced the importance of the event, appreciated being a part of something much bigger than just golf and they played as hard as they do in important championships.

The notably missing men who used mainly flimsy excuses to absent themselves will all be in Tokyo – provided they’re still good enough – and both they and the event will be better for their participation.

It would be easy to assume once winning a medal was out of reach there wasn’t much point scrapping out a higher finish just for the sake of it. There was no prizemoney, so finishing seventh or 13th would seem irrelevant.

But golfers, being golfers, grind all the way to the finish preferring always to shoot 71 to 72 and there is always someone ahead they’d rather not lose to.

Su Oh, my boss for the week, had some sort of chance of a bronze medal when she birdied the 11th to get to seven under on the final day and three birdies from there would have done it. Instead, I made a mess of both a club and a shot at the difficult par-four 13th, she went long, made a double-bogey from a difficult spot in the back bunker and the hope was gone.

In the end, a tie for 13th was a pretty decent week, one in which every player who finished ahead of her was ranked higher in the game’s measurement of such things and she beat a handful, including Lexi Thompson and Sei Young Kim, both ranked in the top handful of players in the game.

Minjee Lee, too, played really well, finishing eight under but with her winning chance ruined by two hooks into the water and a subsequent triple-bogey on the short par-4 third hole in round three.

The cold facts of professional golf are unless you are Tiger Woods and you’re so much better than the rest that the odd mistake is covered by an ability to do something none of the others can do, you cannot win championships by three-putting, failing to get the following shot on to a green you miss or taking penalty shots.

Inbee Park won the gold medal not a month after deciding to skip her defence of the British Open and then missing the cut at a Korean Tour event the following week. Not a single player in the field saw it coming given her uninspired play this season, yet she beat the best player in the game, Lydia Ko, into second with an extraordinary performance and a reminder of what a brilliant player she has been.

The other star of the fortnight was the golf course and that is a rare thing in professional golf as the game, especially the women’s side of it, finds very good commercial reasons to visit average golf courses most weeks of the year.

In Rio, course architect Gil Hanse found a sandy and mildly undulating site  (think Kingston Heath or The Lakes) conducive to the making of a really interesting course – although that is no guarantee of not messing it up.

Hanse not only didn’t mess it up, he made a fascinating test where he proved angles are still important no matter the view the modern power game has made them an irrelevancy. He did it without having to resort to the curse of long green grass bordering fairways and surrounding greens and he did it elegantly with a beautifully crafted, varied and interesting set of green complexes.

One wonders what will happen to the course after this week. Golf is a game played only by the rich in Brazil and its image is one of privilege and locked gates. It is a much better game when everyone can play and cities are much better places when people don’t live behind walls with gates and guards with guns to protect the more fortunate. Privileged golf and people living behind walls seem sadly to go together in many parts of the world, places where there is great disparity of wealth – sometimes only a short par four apart.

Hanse’s course is a public one, but there are no plans after the Olympics to turn it into a place to pay for itself.

“It’s just Brazil,” said Hanse, where “the it’ll-be-right-on-the-day attitude” is how things seem to run.

Hopefully the course lives because it deserves to be a worthwhile legacy of the Games.

Olympic golf, though, seems certain to survive after this fortnight, as both the crowds and the golf were terrific and more importantly the men’s event was only out-rated this year in the United States by the Masters.

In the end, money rules and is regularly the factor around which such decisions are made.