Golf in the 2016 Rio Olympics became the rare sporting event that is equal parts underrated and overrated. Coming into the contest in Rio de Janeiro, nobody really knew how these four days would play out. Players dropping out like (I'm sorry) flies did not portend for a high-level golf tournament. On the other hand, it would be pretty terrific to see medals hung around the tanned necks of golfers for the first time in over a century.
Both scenarios played out.
The best players have always determined which events matter when it comes to golf, not the other way around. If Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Dustin Johnson suddenly boycotted the U.S. Open, the tournament simply would not mean as much. So their exclusion for the Olympics mattered. It had to. There is no asterisk for Justin Rose's win. That's not what I'm saying. But a tournament with the same field strength as the Sony Open is not an all-time event. At least not in the way we think about golf tournaments.
I saw several folks on social media trying to make the 2016 Olympic golf competition into the 1997 Masters or the 1960 U.S. Open or even the 2016 Open Championship. Historically great! All-time! One of the great days in the sport!
Here's what golf in the Olympics was: It was a really solid four-day event that was more fun and more competitive than we thought it would be. It was also a great stepping stone for the future of golf in the Olympics. That's all it was. It was an intriguing one-off in a sport filled with too many competitions that look exactly the same. Nothing more or less than that.
For sports like golf, the Olympics will never be the pinnacle, and thus the greatest players will never consider it primary in the way they train or create their schedules. It's the same reason LeBron James is taking selfies with Dave Chappelle right now instead of receiving alley oops from Kyrie Irving and putting some poor Serbian or Brazilian on a industrial building-sized poster like he has over the last few Summer Games.
When your sport's greatest event (or in the case of golf, events) is somewhere other than the Olympics, the Olympics will never be what people try to make them into for your sport. Is Olympic basketball fun? Yes, it is. Has it provided some really good moments? Sure. Have those moments stood up to and usurped important moments from past NBA Finals or even Conference Finals and good regular season games? No, they haven't.
On the flip side, it's OK to admit that this golf contest was better than people thought it would be. I said on Sunday night that I bet McIlroy, who completely lit the event on fire a month ago, knew who won and maybe even watched. This was confirmed on Monday morning.
Rose said that Rory sent him a next text of congratulations and "he was watching" on TV.— Doug Ferguson (@dougferguson405) August 15, 2016
I seriously doubt Spieth was weeping into his millions of dollars at not showing up for golf in Rio, but I do think McIlroy felt a twinge of guilt for the act of arson he committed at The Open Championship.
"I'll probably watch the Olympics, but I'm not sure golf will be one of the events I'll watch," said McIlroy at The Open. "Track and field, swimming, diving ... the stuff that matters."
Golf in the Olympics matters. A lot more than we thought but just not as much as some people would like you to think.
There is a middle ground here, and it is OK to exist there. It is OK to admit that the golf in Rio was more compelling than we thought it would be going into the week, and it is equally OK to not rank this even ahead of the major championships and a bevy of other tournaments that had better fields and were simply better events.
Was the medal ceremony a sweet touch and the national pride expressed by the winner, Justin Rose, palpable? Yes, it was. That was the capper for me. That showed that this tournament has some merit going forward. It's sort of a Ryder Cup combined with a Presidents Cup with every country in the world invited. That's great. That's good for golf. But it's not historically pertinent in the ways we might think, according to Brad Klein of Golfweek.
There's no evidence in the developing world that exposure to competitive golf develops mass popularity and participation. An aspiring country such as China might seek world-class status through training elite athletes to compete on a global stage. But that doesn't translate into mass participation without an entirely different, populist emphasis, one based on getting youth from the peasantry and middle classes out to play.
Absent that effort, golf is likely to remain a game of the elite in developing nations. And it's likely to remain closed off from the concerns of everyday life and recreation. Evidence for that can be seen in Rio itself, where a virtual police-state presence has kept an uneasy peace in the city's impoverished urban ghetto favelas during these games.
Interestingly, Bubba Watson who has been one of the primary promotion men this week for the sport in Rio accidentally explained why the Olympics are great but not necessarily because ofthe golf.
"This is a dream of a lifetime," Watson told Golf Channel. "I'm hanging with the athletes. I mean, golf just gets in my way. I want to go watch the other sports. The Masters, I get the Masters for the rest of my life, but it's just golf. There's no other events going on. And so when you talk about a sporting event, this is a dream come true, and to be a part of it, it's the greatest event I've ever been a part of."
Yes, he nails it there. Golf in the Olympics is terrific because of what it allows the golfers to experience. You can immerse yourself in track or swimming or fencing or table tennis. You can represent your country. Golf is great in the Olympics because it is different, but that doesn't automatically elevate the actual playing of golf in the Olympics above all these other global golf competitions.
"This was a chance to medal and do something; my heart was pounding," Matt Kuchar ,who won a bronze for the United States, told Golf Channel. "I can assure you I've never been so excited to finish top 3 in my life. I've never felt this sort of pride just busting out of my chest before."
That's awesome because it's different than any other event. It's a unique tournament in a sport that has few of them. However, I judge the importance of golf tournaments by how many days into the future I'm discussing them with friends or other writers. This nearly always happens with major championships. They just feel more important.
I was talking about that Henrik Stenson-Phil Mickelson showdown at Royal Troon with random golf friends for weeks. The same was true in lesser forms of the Jordan Spieth meltdown at Augusta and Dustin Johnson back nine extravaganza at Oakmont. Those moments mattered. They were historically important.
Maybe that's not the right way to view things, and maybe my consumption of these Olympic Games through a television instead of in person is taking the experience down a notch. I'm just not sure we'll be telling our grand kids about that time Rose got up and down on No. 18 in Rio for gold. Maybe we will. Who knows.
When the Masters started in the mid 1930s, it was not universally considered the most important event. These things take time to breathe and stretch their legs which is sort of my point.
These Olympics mattered, too, but in a different way. The tournament in Rio last week was historic in that golf had not been played in the Olympics in 112 years, but it was not an historically great tournament. Maybe golf at the Olympics never will be, but the important thing is that the sport took a strong first step towards creating a really great one-off event that comes around every four years.
I'm guessing most players saw that and will look for excuses to go to, and not exclude themselves, from Tokyo in 2020.