We caught up with Antony Scanlon, executive director of the International Golf Federation, the sport’s world governing body, to learn more.
Why Rio, and why now?
Well we didn’t have a choice! Golf was voted back in as an Olympic sport in 2009, just before the IOC awarded the 2016 Games to Rio. Of all host cities in the running, Rio was the least equipped in terms of golf, which we saw as a great opportunity.
Right. You don’t often hear Brazil and golf mentioned in the same breath. What’s the golf culture and infrastructure like there?
There are less than 1,000 players in Rio, which only has two small private courses. Sao Paulo, which has more courses, is home to around 15,000 golfers. The great thing is the Brazilian Golf Federation is using the Olympics to break down barriers and golf’s reputation as an elitist sport. After the Games, the new Olympic course – which is less than five miles from Olympic Park, and one lagoon away from the beach – will be the only public 18-hole course in all of Brazil. The Brazilian Federation will run it from the moment the competition ends. So together, we will leave a great legacy for both the country and the game of golf.
Golf has only been played in two Olympic Games: Paris in 1900 and St. Louis in 1904. Why such a short run and subsequent long absence?
The Olympic organizing committee elected not to have it on the program back then, but we don’t really know why. Decades later, golf began to carve out its own existence on both a professional level – as the majors gained prominence – and at the amateur level with the Walker Cup. In a way, I guess these tournaments served as a substitute for the Olympics. But by the late-1990s and early-2000s, momentum started to build to get golf back in the Games. What we were hearing from amateur golfing bodies, especially those in smaller countries for golf, was that if the sport became part of the Olympic program again that it would receive more attention and recognition among governments and national organizing committees – which would lead to more funding and resources. That galvanized golf’s amateur and professional bodies to get together on the bid in Copenhagen where golf was voted back in, along with rugby.
Since then, we’ve seen incredible growth globally at the amateur level. The community of national golf federations has grown from 105 countries in 2009 to 148 in 2016. That’s phenomenal growth before even teeing up a ball in Rio. For instance, in China, golf has traditionally been seen as a pastime – not a real sport. But now that golf is back in the Olympics, every province has built its own junior development strategy, and they launched a national golf competition called the All-China Games. The increased funding we’ve seen is helping to launch grassroots development programs like Golf for Life in Brazil, which will expose thousands of kids to the game. And in mature golf markets like Argentina, elite junior golfers are now playing around the world thanks to the support of development grants.
Why are golf and the Olympics a good fit?
Our values mirror those of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). We’re the only sport where competitors call their own penalties. Golf is played every weekend by 50 million people around the world. As I mentioned earlier, we now have 147 national golf federations. And through the handicap system, golfers of all ages and skill levels can share a round. You can play with your grandfather and daughter and have a professional complete the foursome – and all compete on a level playing field. We belong in the Olympic program.
What can you tell us about the Olympic course in Rio?
Back in 2011, we launched a competition among some of the world’s top golf course architects. Gil Hanse ended up emerging from the very talented field and delivered a masterpiece of a course design. And we were very fortunate to have a British superintendent by the name of Neil Cleverly onboard. We call him the grass whisperer. He did a fantastic job producing this course. It’s one thing to have a great job and it’s another to deliver it.
What can players expect when they tee off in a few weeks?
It’s a very playable course for golfers of all skill levels, but one that will have plenty of teeth come Games time. As an Australian, it reminds me a little of the courses you find in the Melbourne sand belt area. It’s a sand-based course, so Gil was able to mold a piece of plaster and render a great design. He did a great job building excitement through a string of finishing holes. Number 14 is one of the course’s signature holes… a long par 3 hitting into a small green surrounded by bunkers. From there, players will make their way back to the clubhouse along the outside of the course, looking towards Olympic Village. There’s a long par 4 hitting into an elevated green, and a drive-able but into-the-wind par 4 with a postage-stamp green. And the 18th is a long par 5 finishing hole. By the final round, risk will certainly be rewarded. And a sudden-death playoff for medals should bring an added degree of drama for both players and fans. The competition will wrap on the final day around 3:30 p.m., leaving plenty of time for extra golf.