No one will question Jim Furyk’s patriotism.
The 2003 U.S. Open champion has represented his country 15 times in Ryder Cup, Presidents Cup or World Cup competition and reveled in every opportunity.
But when it comes to golf’s debut in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Furyk sounds almost as skeptical as he was when he first heard the proposal.
“I was one of the very few who maybe wasn’t real pro-Olympic originally,” Furyk said last month at Congressional Country Club. “From a financial aspect, I understand it from the world of golf. But any decision made on finances usually is a poor decision.
“By the time it gets here, I’ll be 46 and it’s not going to be on me. Thirty years from now, the Olympics may be the biggest event in our sport. We’ll see.”
One of four player directors on the PGA Tour policy board in 2012 and chairman of the 16-man players advisory council in 2011, Furyk isn’t the only tour member ambivalent on the issue. Every pro interviewed last month during the AT&T National at Congressional said winning an Olympic gold medal wouldn’t compare to capturing a major championship. Some wondered why the Olympic model – 72-hole stroke-play tournaments for men and women with 60-player fields – includes no team concept. A few admitted that participating in the opening and closing ceremonies might be the most thrilling part.
Ty Votaw, the PGA Tour’s executive vice president for communications and international affairs, knows there is little buzz at the moment, even with this week’s $8.5 million World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club coinciding with the 2012 Summer Games in London.
“Golf is a sport that focuses on next and there’s a lot of nexts between now and 2016,” Votaw said at the AT&T National. “But we’re looking forward to it and we think it’s going to be great for the game.”
Stewart Cink, the 2009 British Open champion and 2004 NEC Invitational winner, called himself “indifferent” about the plan at the outset. Cink is also a member of the tour’s players advisory council.
“I care about it, but I didn’t have a strong opinion either way,” Cink said at Congressional. “I’m glad it’s part of the Olympics because I think it brings respect for golf. What I’m concerned about is the way they’re going to format it.
“A 72-hole stroke play tournament doesn’t lend itself that well to the medal race. As we all know who are involved with golf, fourth place, sixth place, eighth place are really good showings. I almost think a long drive contest lends itself better to a medal, where you can have preliminaries and heats and guys are going for the gold like a sprint. In golf when you have 72 holes, it’s hard to be excited about it.”
Cink also expressed concern about golfers being prohibited from displaying their sponsors’ logos during the games, along with the fact there will be no prize money.
“I’m sure Nike would love to have swooshes all over the Olympics, but they’re not going to get that,” said Cink, who represents Nike.
“Then because of that what bothers me is the chance that a very highly ranked player will say, ‘No, thanks, I’ll pass.’ Then golf looks like a bunch of spoiled brats, ‘We won’t play unless we get paid.’ I think there are a lot of dangers. That’s why I was not strongly in favor or against it.”
Furyk didn’t raise those points at Congressional. He seemed to be speaking more as a sports fan. He doesn’t believe Olympic medals in golf or tennis carry the same weight as they do in track and field or swimming.
“The events I enjoy watching in the Olympics usually aren’t your mainstream,” Furyk said. “I don’t believe it means more to the NBA players to win a gold medal at the Olympics than it does to win the NBA championship, no matter what country you’re from. I believe Wimbledon is more important than the Olympics to those athletes.
“That being the case, I really don’t want to see that as much as I want to see swimming and track and field. We have Michael Phelps and [Ryan] Lochte, this is the pinnacle of their sport. Anything they do at the Olympics, that’s how they’re judged. To me that’s what makes great [theater].”
At the AT&T National, virtually no golfer knew how the Olympic competitors will be chosen. Votaw said the top 15 will come from the World Golf Rankings.
“In all likelihood, it will be up to a maximum of four per country in that 15,” Votaw said. “Then no more than two from any one country not otherwise qualified down to a field of 60.”
Votaw said with limitations on nationalities, player selection could go down into the 300s in the world rankings. That could provide Fiji’s Vijay Singh, who will be 53 in 2016, another reason to practice.
Votaw said players from Northern Ireland like Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell could choose to play for Ireland, opening up more top 15 spots for those from Great Britain.
“England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are all one country,” Votaw said. “Padraig Harrington is from Ireland, he goes to Ireland. If you look at the top 15 now, I think there’s probably six or seven from GBI. If Rory and Graeme choose to play for Ireland instead of GBI, that will let some of those guys compete.”
Golf’s leaders pursued entrance into the Olympics for the chance to develop the game globally. Votaw believes golfers from Korea, which claimed 37 medals in the 2008 Beijing Olympics (31 by South Koreans), would value a gold medal more than a major championship.
“The entire country focuses on the Olympics and only a percentage focus on golf in any given week,” Votaw said of Korea. “That’s going to be something we think is a positive for our sport.”
He said at the time the bid was being prepared, Lorena Ochoa was the No. 1 player in the women’s game. He pointed out that Mexico won three medals in the Beijing Games, two in tae kwon do, and said a medal by Ochoa (who has since retired) would have a major impact.
“That’s huge in terms of resources the national Olympic committee would give, the amount of resources governments give to Olympic sports they’re successful in,” Votaw said. “That’s another big engine for growth.
“Now you’re seeing examples where places like China, India, Brazil or Russia are allocating more and more resources to bolster the game so they can have success in the Olympics in ’16 or ’20.”
Australian Greg Chalmers, playing in his first Bridgestone Invitational, said he watched the 2000 Games in his native Sydney on television. He’s curious to see how golf in the Olympics will develop the sport, but isn’t sure it will ever reach the status of a tournament like the Masters.
“If you ask most players, they’d be more excited about winning their first major than their first gold medal,” Chalmers said at Congressional. “But if you ask some players who have won majors like Tiger, they might be pretty excited about a gold medal.”
Some who could have an opportunity to play for the United States in 2016, barring injury, seem excited at the prospect.
“The Olympics are pretty prestigious. If you’re an Olympic gold medalist, that’s something you’ll always have,” said Dustin Johnson, 28. “It means a lot to represent your country, so I think it will be a lot of fun.”
Of those interviewed at Congressional, Hunter Mahan, 30, sounded the most inspired to go to Rio, even though he said the time commitment would be “difficult.”
“It would be incredible,” Mahan said. “To think about it, to see it on TV, you have so much appreciation for people who put so much work into something that happens once every four years. I don’t even think winning it, we would actually understand what it means.
“You see when an athlete gets to represent his country, they have a great understanding of what it means to be an American. It’s very overwhelming to think about it. I hope to make the team. That will be part of everyone’s goals that year.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.