Golf returned to the Olympic Games on Thursday for the first time in 112 years, after a build-up overshadowed by player withdrawals which left some questioning its right to be involved.
International Golf Federation (IGF) president Peter Dawson, however, remains confident of an Olympic experience which will be good for the Games and good for the development of golf. Before the tournament began in Rio on Wednesday, he spoke to SportsPro about his hopes for the event and gave his take on the state of golf worldwide.
SP: First of all, how relieved are you that you’re not starting today?
PD: Well, the weather’s pretty rough out there today. It’s wet, and very windy, and cold! We’ve got a much better forecast for the four days of the actual men’s event; it’s a little too early to judge what the weather will be like for the women’s. But we’ll be ready to make history for golf tomorrow morning [Thursday] at 7.30 when Adilson da Silva of Brazil tees off at the first. I’m really looking forward to it.
What’s the get-in process been for golf here since the IGF arrived in Rio?
We’ve had people down here a great deal over the months and years building up to this, especially course construction and agronomy people advising and progressing the development of the golf course. So we’ve been very knowledgeable about the site, about what’s going on, and so the actual arrival here has not been that much of a surprise for us. Although getting the final details of all the infrastructure built – television towers lagged and so on, and the fanzone, and all of the catering and everything like that, and the signage – that’s always a rush at every golf event.
But, you know, golf puts on big events every week of the year – often more than one – somewhere in the world, and so we’re pretty accustomed to doing this.
What’s the concept of the course?
From a player perspective, first of all, I think they’ve been quite surprised how good a golf course this is. The Gil Hanse design, given the land he had, he’s laid it out with a style quite reminiscent of the ‘Sand Belt’ courses in Melbourne, in Australia: big, clever bunkering, rolling wide fairways and so on, but a strategic approach to the course. But the players have been very positive about the layout and very positive about the condition of the golf course.
"I think we will soon not be talking about the ones that aren’t here but talking about the ones that are here."
Has there been any kind of education programme for spectators? Will there be guides for spectators – commentary and that kind of thing – around the course to help them get involved with the event?
As the spectators come in there’s a fanzone down there and there are parts of that which are dedicated to informing spectators as to what’s expected of them. I don’t expect that to be 100 per cent successful but I think it’ll settle down quite quickly. I’ve got no real fears about it, to be honest.
And of course, in golf, the spectators get closer to the athletes than perhaps they do pretty much in any other events, and I think they’ll be pretty excited about that.
What about in terms of being able to follow the action knowledgeably and enthusiastically?
In terms of following the action round the course, that’s going to be pretty easy for them from a walking point of view. There are some strategically placed grandstands for people who want to watch the groups come through.
I think many spectators will be on a learning experience. They won’t know until they get here exactly what it’s all about and that’s true of many sports, isn’t it, in the Olympics? We go along to archery or equestrian or something and we don’t quite know what the rules of engagement are, but we soon find out! And I’m sure that will happen here.
You mention the spectators getting very close to the players. What’s your impression been of how the players who are out here have reacted to the Olympic experience?
So far the players have been very, very positive. They haven’t been playing in front of crowds yet because we haven’t had spectators here on practice days, but the social media reaction of the players to their Olympic experience has been 100 per cent positive. And I’m delighted by it. They’re all delighted to be here, they’re relishing the experience, they’re loving mixing with athletes from other sports in the village and elsewhere, and I couldn’t be more happy.
Golf returned to the Olympic Games on Thursday for the first time in 112 years.
Where does that take the sport after the disappointments of the player withdrawals it’s had? What kind of impression do the players have to make here?
When we decided to bid for golf to come back into the Olympic Games – and we were eventually successful in ’09 in Copenhagen – we did it largely not just to increase or broaden golf’s competitive landscape, but so many national federations from countries where golf was a relatively small sport said to us, ‘Look, if golf was an Olympic sport it would help expose the sport in our country more, it would give us more government recognition, it would produce more central funding.’ And it became absolutely clear that Olympic inclusion was the biggest ‘grow the game’ opportunity for golf.
And we’re already seeing that. Since we got in in ’09, we’ve had 31 countries join the International Golf Federation that weren’t members before, we’re seeing government funding going into golf in countries that weren’t getting it before – even before we’ve hit a ball in the Olympic Games. So I think growing the game is going to start in earnest tomorrow morning, as far as the effect of having it in the Olympics is concerned, and I’m very, very positive about that.
I think we will soon not be talking about the ones that aren’t here but talking about the ones that are here, who will be Olympians now for the rest of their lives. The others can’t say that.
What was your reaction to those players taking that decision not to be Olympians?
I respect everyone’s decision for the reasons they took them, obviously, and it’s not for me to second-guess individuals’ decisions. I can’t say I wasn’t disappointed at the scale of it but that’s behind us now, and I think that story’s probably been beaten to death. I’m much more excited about the positives that are here.
Of course, the women are turning out 100 per cent – which is wonderful. Most of the withdrawals came from four countries: Ireland, South Africa, Australia and the United States. And that’s out of 147 countries that are members of the IGF. So in a sense, it’s a minority – but they are top-level players and I am very sorry that they’re not here. I have a feeling that some of those individuals might be sorry that they’re not here, too.
Is there a need to create that feeling among those players that the next event will be unmissable in Tokyo?
I think putting on a good show here, and the player experience here, is going to go a long way to solving that problem. And where the next Olympics is is a big golfing nation – most of the players will have played there before, and Kazumigasecki is a course we know well, which is going to be the Olympic venue in Tokyo.
And I see this as having some similarities to tennis. They came back into the Olympics in ’88. I think only two of the top ten male players at the time competed – but look at it now. The top tennis players really want to play and they turn out in full force. So I’ve got every confidence that as new golfers grow up with golf as an Olympic sport, that winning the gold medal will be a huge piece of golf’s competitive landscape.
"It’s not just, of course, what you do at an Olympic Games that matters. It’s also how good a member of the Olympic family your sport is."
Prize money is a different conversation and not something you can do much about, but is there anything you could do in terms of rankings points or the calendar to make the tournament more attractive to top players?
Well, world ranking points are available for the Olympic competition so there’s no problems there. I think the schedule – which does get very crowded in a Ryder Cup year with all the majors and an Olympic Games, is something we’re going to have to discuss in golf. It’s very easy to say the schedule needs to be looked at; much more difficult to do it. Sponsors of tournaments don’t want to take a year off and all that kind of thing. So it’s easy to say and difficult to do, but we’ll certainly be looking at it.
Do you have any concerns about golf’s long-term future in the Games as a result of this?
I’m not complacent about it, and obviously having some players withdraw has not been helpful in that regard, but that said I’m very confident that we’re going to have a great golf event for men and a great golf event for women here, and that golf will tick many of the boxes that the IOC are looking at when they come to review events next year for 2024 and beyond.
It’s not just, of course, what you do at an Olympic Games that matters. It’s also how good a member of the Olympic family your sport is. And we’re working very hard to be as helpful as we can and participate in IOC initiatives through our staff in Lausanne. That’s an important element in this, too.
Has it been a disappointment that the withdrawals in the men’s tour have overshadowed the story of the women’s event and that the women are taking this incredibly seriously?
We’ve kept saying that, and I think it’s the way the media almost decide to report these things. I mean, it’s a very positive story about the women and one doesn’t hear enough about it, that’s for sure. And the more we hear about it, the better, because it is a truly positive story.
What have been the key lessons for you from this first Olympic experience, on a practical level? What will you take into Tokyo?
I think golf is accustomed to being very self-sufficient in terms of setting up its events and so on, and coming to an Olympic Games where the city and Rio 2016 has a role makes it slightly more complex. And we’ve had to learn to work with that.
I think, personally, that the international federations should perhaps have a little more autonomy in setting up their events – which I think can only be helpful to the host city, actually. Host cities have a huge management job in getting all of this done and golf, the tours and the major championships do all of this that we’re seeing out here themselves – with local volunteers, for sure – every week. So I think the role of the IFs in organising events is something that might benefit from a re-examination.
Rio's Gil Hanse-designed course was built especially for this summer's Games.
Is there anything that golf can do to make itself a neater fit into the Games? Obviously, where there isn’t an existing course, as in Rio, it’s quite a challenge.
Of course, Rio knew that they had the Games before they knew they had golf. Golf was actually voted in a few days after Rio won the bid, so they didn’t know.
There aren’t many cities in the world where there wouldn’t be a golf venue that was suitable. Rio’s been a little unlucky in that regard. But equally, we’ve created a wonderful thing here that’s going to be a legacy for golf in the future in Brazil.
What would be a successful Olympic Games for you here? Ticketing is obviously not going to be through the roof in this market but what would take for you to be able to look back and say you’ve made the most out of these two weeks?
I think a number of things. A really exciting pair of golf events would be terrific, with good, worthy champions, enjoyed by crowds with great television coverage and good viewing figures around the world, and that the athletes enjoy the experience and take that story away with them. I think that would be all very, very successful.
Will you be looking again at how this tournament pans out and consider things like matchplay? Will some of the conversations you had before this tournament be happening again?
Oh yes. I mean, there are very good reasons for the format and the qualification arrangements that we have this time. That goes back to when we were bidding: the IOC didn't want more than 60 athletes each because of their overall numbers; they wanted a format that was well proven in the game; we wanted player support and the players wanted 72-hole stroke play at that time, and television certainly did.
So there's been very good reasons for where we are but everything's up for review, and the format is one of those things and we'll be having a look at it.
One last thing: there have been reports of wildlife encroaching on to player areas. Is that something that concerns you at all?
It's entirely normal in climates like this. These guys play in Florida a lot of the time and there's alligators all over the place! So no, not at all.
Dawson was speaking to SportsPro editor Eoin Connolly.