Olympic-sized questions about golf

MARANA, Ariz. -- The first World Golf Championship event of 2014 begins on Wednesday, and it will conclude Sunday -- the same day the Winter Olympics are scheduled to end.

If you are looking for a hook between the two, there was snow here at Dove Mountain during the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship -- last year. This year, temperatures are expected to be around 80 degrees.

It will probably be warmer than that when the 2016 Olympic Games head to Brazil, where golf will be included for the first time in more than 100 years. And all of a sudden, Rio de Janeiro doesn't seem so far away.

In theory, the 64 players who are on hand for this week's $9 million WGC event will have a shot at competing for their country in the 2016 Olympics. But whether or not they get there will depend on many factors.

Here is a primer on how Olympic golf will work.

The tournaments will be 72 holes of stroke play for both men and women. This has come under considerable scrutiny, because there is no team aspect to the competition and there very easily could be with some creativity (best-ball; aggregate) while still having an individual trophy.

But the International Golf Federation basically wanted to keep things simple when it went before the International Olympic Committee and was approved for inclusion back in 2009. And it had feedback from the leading players that 72 holes of stroke play was the best and fairest way to crown a champion, or in this case, hand out medals.

There will be 60 players for both men and women in separate tournaments, expected to be played a week apart. This, too, has come under heavy criticism. Why such a small field? (There will be no cut.) According to the International Golf Federation, it is in keeping with the IOC's desire to limit the number of athletes for all of the Games to 10,500. Organizers also wanted a manageable field size so that competitors could play all four rounds.

The field for both men and women will be determined by the Official World Golf Ranking "as close to the event as possible," said PGA Tour executive Ty Votaw, who is also vice president of the International Golf Federation.

Votaw said the date for the OWGR to be used for the Olympics won't be determined until the actual scheduling is in place, but he expects it to be closer to a month before the competition than, say, three months out.

This is important because the rankings are volatile and can change week to week.

The system will work in this manner: The top 15 in the rankings will automatically qualify, as long as there are no more than four players per country. After the 15th-ranked player, the rankings will be used to determine the rest of the 60-player field, with no more than two players per country beyond the top 15 able to compete.

The United States, for example, has eight players among the top 15 at the moment, with No. 1 Tiger Woods, No. 4 Phil Mickelson, No. 6 Zach Johnson and No. 8 Dustin Johnson qualifying if the Olympics were now.

But Dustin Johnson just this week moved ahead of Matt Kuchar, who would be out under the current scenario, showing just how intense things could be two years from now.

The only other country with more than two players among the top 15 in the world at the moment is the United Kingdom, with No. 5 Justin Rose, No. 7 Rory McIlroy and No. 15 Ian Poulter.

Given these parameters, it is expected that on the men's side of the tournament, it will go well past the 300th-ranked player in the world to fill the field.

Speaking of the U.K.
Before anyone gets upset about listing McIlroy from the United Kingdom ... his situation -- and that of Graeme McDowell -- is a difficult one. Both players are from Northern Ireland, which along with England, Scotland and Wales is part of the U.K.

For the purposes of the Olympics, the U.K. competes as one Great Britain team. It does not break up its squad by country. So if Scotland's Stephen Gallacher, England's Rose, Wales' Jamie Donaldson and McIlroy were all in the top 15, they could play for Great Britain in the Olympics.

The problem is, golf does not work that way in any other endeavor, especially the World Cup and in amateur competition. McIlroy and McDowell grew up playing for Ireland -- since both Northern Ireland and Ireland play as one team.

At the World Cub in November at Royal Melbourne, McDowell played with Shane Lowry, who is from Ireland.

Because McDowell did that, he could be expected to play for Ireland if he were to qualify for the Olympics. The IOC typically recognizes the country an athlete competed for in the latest world championship event, such as the World Cup. Because McIlroy did not play in the World Cup, he would have a choice -- Ireland or Great Britain.

The issue is volatile politically and has caused McIlroy great angst. It will be interesting to see what he decides to do.

The golf calendar
In 2016, it promises to be chaotic. Not only are the Olympics going to be staged, but it is also a Ryder Cup year. All of the various tours and golf entities have been struggling to come up with a schedule that works, because significant golf tournaments such as major championships or World Golf Championship events are not allowed to be played during the Olympic time frame.

The Games are scheduled to begin on Aug. 5, 2016, a Friday. The men's event could then reasonably be expected to begin on Aug. 10 or 11, the women to follow a week later.

Not only are there major championships to worry about for the men, but the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and the four FedEx Cup playoff events are typically held around the same time. The PGA of America has already said it is not moving the PGA Championship to a later date, which means cramming in a lot of golf pre-Olympics.

Unless the Open Championship moves to an earlier date -- it is typically played in the July 15-19 time frame -- there could be a scenario where it is followed by the WGC-Bridgestone and then the PGA Championship two weeks later. If the PGA is played a week later, it would be the weekend of the Olympics' opening ceremonies, with the Olympic tournament staged the following week.

Votaw said PGA Tour events can be staged during the Olympics, just not the WGCs or playoff events.

After several false starts, the Olympic course is under construction and is being designed by architect Gil Hanse. The delay is causing some concern because there was supposed to be some sort of test event played at the Olympic venue prior to the Games. It is possible that event could be the newly announced Latin America Amateur Championship, which is being underwritten by the Masters, R&A and USGA. That tournament could be played in January of 2016.

"There have only been two golf courses built in Rio in the last 100 years," Votaw said. "We have a great piece of land, we have a great architect and we feel very good about the potential of what it's going to turn out to be. We thought we'd be further along than we are. That's certainly true.

"And because it's taken longer, there have been some frustrations along the way. Having said all that, we're still bullish about [what] the end product is going to look like."

The future
Golf will be in the 2016 Games as well as 2020 in Tokyo. Whether any format changes occur won't be decided until after Rio. Another vote will take place in 2017 to decide if golf will be back in 2024.

"We're focused on putting the best foot forward in 2016 so we can move toward that 2017 vote with some confidence," Votaw said.