The world’s top golfers will be playing for a major title this week as the London Olympics wind down. In four years, they’ll be going for gold in Brazil.
The sport returns to the Olympic program in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and in a host city yet to be determined in 2020. Like basketball and tennis, professionals will take part in the competition.
“It’s going to be very special if I can represent my country,” said American Dustin Johnson, who finished ninth at last month’s British Open. “Being an Olympian is about being an athlete and being part of something that’s bigger than you and the sport.”
Johnson, 28, and Spain’s Sergio Garcia, 32, were both in London for a July 23 Olympic golf event in which they hit balls to a floating green in the River Thames. With two of the biggest events of the golf season looming, they couldn’t stick around for the start of the London Games four days later.
The game’s top pros played in the World Golf Championships Bridgestone Invitational in Ohio last weekend and now head to Kiawah Island, South Carolina, for the year’s final major at the U.S. PGA Championship.
That leaves television and the Internet as the main way for the golfers to follow the action in London. For some, it’s also meant missing out on the world’s biggest sports event in their own backyard.
“I’ll be in America the duration of the Olympics,” England’s Lee Westwood, No. 4 in the Official World Golf Ranking, said at the British Open. “So it’s a shame. I would have liked to have gone.”
One player who did make it to London was third-ranked Rory McIlroy. The Northern Irishman visited the Olympic Village before heading to Ohio, where he finished fifth, accompanied by his girlfriend, tennis player Caroline Wozniacki, who was competing for Denmark.
“It was the first time I’d been close to the Olympics in any way, and it’s completely different than anything I’ve ever been at before,” McIlroy told reporters prior to the Bridgestone Invitational. “I think for golf it’s great that it’s in the Olympics.”
Golf was last included in the Olympics in 1904 at St. Louis. The International Olympic Committee added it back to the program in 2009, along with rugby, after many of the top professionals at the time, including Tiger Woods, said they’d like to play.
Three years later, Woods, a 14-time major champion, is still eager for Olympic competition.
“I’ll be 40 by then,” he told reporters at the British Open. “It will be something that I’ve never experienced. I would love to be able to have a chance to represent my country.”
Though golf has four major championships each year, along with events such as the Ryder Cup, the Olympics would be a unique addition to the season, according to Garcia.
“It’s going to be different to a major or a Ryder Cup,” he said in London. “It’s going to be really exciting to be a part of it, to meet some of the other athletes and to be part of Olympic history.”
Golf’s proposal called for 72-hole men’s and women’s competitions played over four days, with medals awarded to the three lowest scorers in each field. It’s the same format used for most professional tournaments around the world.
The course for the competition in Rio has yet to be built. In March, Malvern, Pennsylvania-based Hanse Golf Design was selected to construct the facility, with groundbreaking set for October or November.
That “will put us well into the timetable we need to run a test event prior to the Olympic Games, probably in 2015,” Peter Dawson, chief executive officer of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, which oversees the game outside of the U.S. and Mexico, said during the British Open.
Johnson and Garcia both pointed to the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona as their most vivid Olympic memories. For Garcia, it was the fact the games were staged in his homeland, while Johnson said he remembered the U.S. basketball “Dream Team.”
To Garcia, the chance to make his own Olympic memory is too good to pass up.
“Being such a big fan of the Olympics, I think it would be amazing,” he said. “I’m not saying it would be recognized as winning a major, but to be able to participate in the Olympics and win a gold medal would be one of the coolest things ever.”