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Golf revelling in its time in the Olympic sun

2018-02-14 17:42:14

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After a 112-year absence it took just two memorable weeks for golf to make a huge success of its return to the Olympic stage.

“It’s great to see great the players learning from their experience with other competitors too. The interaction between athletes from other sports has taken them out of that golf bubble into meeting other athletes and learning from other events, countries and cultures, which is what the Olympics is about".

Great Britain’s Justin Rose and South Korean Inbee Park won gold at the 2016 Games in Rio and the occasion left a lasting impression on viewers and competitors alike, sweeping away any scepticism over the sport’s reintroduction.

Golf’s first Olympic appearance since 1904 drew large crowds to watch a star-packed field as 2016 Open champion Henrik Stenson and USA Ryder Cup hero Matt Kuchar pushed Rose all the way in the men’s event.

And it was just as thrilling in the women’s championship where New Zealand’s Lydia Ko and Shanshan Feng of China battled Park for the coveted gold. Now attention turns to Tokyo 2020 where the event is being staged at the famous Kasumigaseki Country Club.

“The feedback was so positive from Rio,” said Anthony Scanlon, executive director of the International Golf Federation.

“That was from people inside and outside golf. The wariness of how golf fits into a multi-sport event like the Olympics changed. It sat well and the players that were there are now evangelical about it.

“Justin Rose has four years where he can boast about being the Olympic champion. Henrik Stenson is boasting about coming second, though you don’t talk about coming second in a Major.

“And Kuchar is now famous for walking around with the bronze medal in his pocket.

“Among the women that were there, they’re all bubbling about how it gave them pretty much a level playing field with the men’s event during the coverage and the ratings.”

Before Tokyo, golf will again play a big part in the Youth Olympic Games – where it enjoyed a terrific debut in Nanjing four years ago.

The latest YOG takes place in Buenos Aires this October and golf will follow the same format of 2014, taking a leaf out of the Ryder Cup playbook to test players individually and collectively.

The competition comprises singles matches for boys and girls as well as a team event – a mixed contest featuring both golfers from each country in foursomes, fourballs and singles.

“It’s like the Ryder Cup,” said Scanlon. “You have fourballs and foursomes plus individual scores among the two players – it adds up to a 72-hole total competition. From that you crown your champion.

“It’s an exciting format. The first two days the golfers are working together as a team and on the last day they’re having to put a good score up individually.”

The 2014 event, held at Zhongshan International Golf Club, proved a watershed moment for a number of players.

Not only did they have to adapt to a course that would have seemed very different from the ones they were used to at home, they also had their eyes opened to the training regimes and working practices of athletes from a raft of sports.

“All of a sudden they’re eating different foods, hearing different languages and seeing different cultures,” said Scanlon.

“The course in Argentina is a traditionally old-style one and they played the Buenos Aires Open there and the Ladies’ Championship, so it’s testing.

“It’s great to see great the players learning from their experience with other competitors too. The interaction between athletes from other sports has taken them out of that golf bubble into meeting other athletes and learning from other events, countries and cultures, which is what the Olympics is about.

“One coach came up to me two years after the 2014 YOG. He said, ‘I have to say, for one of my players it was the turning point in their career. She had a bit of desire to become a leading amateur golfer in her own right but once she saw how other golfers were training, practising and behaving, and all the other athletes around them, she decided to lift her game.’

She changed her training programme and diet and she’s taken off since to be one of the leading amateur players. So that feedback in itself was great to hear.”

The kudos of representing their country has meant the Youth Olympics Games is now a hot topic on driving ranges at major amateur competitions. “They all say they want to represent their country at the Olympics,” said Scanlon.

And with the Tokyo Games just a couple of years way, the heat is on for the sport’s elite stars too.

“We have a course the players will be challenged by,” said Scanlon. “It will look fantastic on TV and we have a population of golf lovers, which we’re excited about.

“We’re hoping for great crowds and more drama — similar to what we had in the finishing holes for the men in Rio. It feels like it’s all in good shape. From the juniors’ point of view the Olympics are now part of their golfing aspirations. It’s not just about winning Majors but competing in the YOG and then the Olympics.”

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