After years of controversy, Olympic golf is on the tee

RIO DE JANEIRO – They built it and some have come. Whether Gil Hanse’s handiwork becomes a field of dreams is now up to the clarity of competition.

After seven long years of hype and handwringing, controversy and curiosity the time for speculation ends early Thursday morning when Brazil’s Adilson da Silva returns golf to the Olympics after more than a century hiatus with a single tee shot.

On the eve of the men’s competition in Rio all those concerns – from the Zika virus to construction delays – have largely slipped away under the glow of the Olympic flame.

On Tuesday, the team from the United States fielded what will likely be the last of the questions about the players who aren’t at the Games. From here the narrative shifts to those who did make the trip.

“Ten years down the line you’re going to look at who won the gold medal, not who wasn’t here,” said Henrik Stenson, the highest-ranked player in this week’s field.

Although the relative success or failure of this year’s Games will always be tied to those who decided to pass on the Olympic opportunity – a list that includes four out of the top 5 in the world wanking – the ultimate litmus test now depends on the next 72 holes.

Asked what elements needed to fall into place this week to make golf’s return to the Games a success, Sergio Garcia waded through all of the distractions that have become the calling card for this competition.

“If it’s a great show, playing good golf and hopefully it comes down to the last few holes where things are tight where someone has a nice finish to win it,” Garcia said.

 
The essence of genuine Olympic drama rides the line between dominance and unparalleled drama; with Michael Phelps winning his 20th gold medal in the 200-meter butterfly being the pinnacle of the former; and Brazilian Rafaela Silva’s gold medal performance in judo a testament to the latter.

The comparison in golf terms would be a Stenson victory, with the Swede pegged as this week’s favorite following his victory at last month’s Open; and a medal performance by the likes of da Silva, the 288th ranked player in the world who left Brazil when he was 16 year’s old to pressure his dream of being a professional golfer.

A victory by Stenson or the likes of Bubba Watson or Rickie Fowler would satisfy the need for competitive continuity and the perceived notion that the game’s best need to deliver on the biggest stage; while a silver or bronze medal for a player like da Silva from a nation where the game is struggling to establish a foothold would add substance to the notion that golf in the Olympics is the most promising “grow the game” initiative since metal replaced wood as the desired material for golf clubs.

From the outset when golf made its pitch to the International Olympic Committee the motivation was to use the Games as a way to extend golf’s reach into non-traditional areas, like Brazil where a country of over 200 million counts just 10,000 golfers with registered handicaps.

Da Silva, who now lives in South Africa, is a familiar tale of perseverance having grown up in a small town south of Rio, beginning his career as a caddie at a nine-hole course because he needed a job not a hobby.

The 44-year-old journeyman sees the Games as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to introduce golf to thousands of potential players.

“This is exactly what we need, things like this. Bring awareness to people and create a bit more interest,” da Silva said. “They will see the game and I think it will create so much curiosity. Especially for the kids.”

The competitive success of the event, however it’s defined, will be married directly to the long-term ability of the Games as a catalyst for growth. In many ways a compelling finish to this week’s competition will be the conversation starter, not the conclusion to a seven-year debate.

The Olympic golf effort will leave behind a golf course that is by most accounts a testament to Hanse’s design brilliance, if not the dogged efforts of those who carved a layout out of a caiman-infested swamp. But the real test will be in the coming years.

“Success will be measured on a number of levels,” said Peter Dawson, the president of the International Golf Federation. “First that we have a compelling and exciting event, that the spectators, many of whom have never been exposed to golf, learn a little about golf, and we’ll never know if someone who watches will be inspired to play golf, but statistically some of that must happen.”

Dawson & Co. built a golf course, now it’s time to see if they’ve built a legacy.