Missing the point on growing golf

RIO DE JANEIRO -- The game of golf has long suffered with issues of participation and growth. The time it takes to play, the cost, the difficulty ... all are factors in the stagnant or declining numbers.

Numerous initiatives have been put in place to help change the narrative, some of which might or might not succeed. How golf's participation in the Olympic Games is supposed to change anything has always been viewed with a skeptical eye.

Rory McIlroy made headlines last month at The Open when he said he "didn't get into golf to try and grow the game'' as he was explaining why he was at peace with his decision to skip the Olympics.

But a lot of the discussion surrounding that has missed the point as it relates to the Olympics. When the men's Olympic tournament begins Thursday morning a few miles from the hysteria of the Olympic Village, the hope is that a new audience will be exposed to the game -- predominantly in places where an Olympic medal causes young people to dream.

"I think it already has helped grow the game and it will,'' said Henrik Stenson, the reigning Open champion, who is from Sweden. "Being part of the Olympic Games, I think golf has real federations, and golf in certain countries have already been getting funds and have been starting to look at it differently.

"I think it already has grown the game. Us here playing is going to be viewed on the world stage, and that's going to be a different thing for the players who are now 14 and sitting back home watching this. I never saw my golfing heroes play in the Olympics, but you're going to have youngsters in different parts of the world watching us play, and they most likely are going to dream about being here one day in the future.''

That is the main point the International Golf Federation -- a group of leaders from various governing bodies -- has been preaching. That and the fact that being an Olympic sport will allow for funding to help nurture players.

Peter Dawson, the president of the IGF, said that since 2009, when golf was given a spot in these Games, the number of worldwide golf federations has grown by more than 40, to 147.

"The fact that golf is in the Olympics means that the national Olympic committee of that country must have a national federation for the Olympic sport,'' Dawson said. "Hence one is formed. Hence golf starts to move in that country. That's what is happening. They get national backing and recognition.''

Dawson cited the former Eastern bloc countries as being the most noticeable ones to have set up federations.

"I don't think anybody can argue [against the point] that golf in the Olympics clearly is going to bring more profile, brings more funding into so many countries,'' said Ireland's Padraig Harrington. "I'm a three-time major winner. If I went to the population of the world and said I was a three-time major winner, at least 90 percent of that population would not have an iota what I was [talking] about.

"If I went to the rest of the world and said I was an Olympic gold-medal winner, you'd probably find that only 10 percent wouldn't know and it would be reverse; 90 percent would know what an Olympic gold-medal winner is. It's massive for golf in the Olympics. It's massive in so many countries.

"I think people who are thinking it doesn't make a difference, golf being in the Olympics, are living in a very Westernized world where golf is a big sport. But it's such a small percentage of the people in the world who would recognize it. Whereas being an Olympic sport, it automatically jumps a barrier that includes it in so many state programs, state funding, which can only be good for the game. Can only be great for the game.''

Harrington, 45, has a unique perspective. He was part of the delegation that went to Switzerland in 2009 to lobby the International Olympic Committee for golf's inclusion in the Games. He was joined by Italy's Matteo Manassero, who was 16 at the time, along with Suzann Pettersen and Michelle Wie, the only one among the foursome who did not qualify for the Games.

"I think in a lot of ways, golf really won when we were voted in,'' said Ty Votaw, vice president of the IGF and an executive with the PGA Tour. "Since that time, you've seen national federations around the world increase. That wouldn't have happened if golf wasn't an Olympic sport.

"That growth happened over the past seven years. That's just one example. You wouldn't have had a flag-bearer from Israel or Bangladesh or Paraguay be a golfer if we weren't in the Olympics.''

There is also the hope that golf will grow in places such as Brazil, which has some 200 million people but only about 20,000 golfers, or .001 percent of the population. The Olympic Golf Course is just the third in the city and the first that is public.

"The Olympics served as an inspiration for the first public golf course in an entire country in Brazil," Votaw said. "And you look at the players who withdrew, primarily fully developed golf-playing nations like South Africa, Australia, Ireland and the United States.

"This was never about growing the sport in those countries in a way that it could in other countries. I think there will be young people in the United States and the U.K. and Ireland and Australia who will be inspired by what they see here. And there might be additional people brought to the game. But because they are fully developed golf-playing nations, the trajectory of growth isn't going to be nearly as steep as it would be in India if Anirban Lahiri wins a bronze medal or a silver medal or a gold medal. That was the real reason.''