Designing the course for the first Olympic golf competition was supposed to be the most difficult part, yet Long Island native Gil Hanse overcame climate logistics and political roadblocks to pull that off, by all accounts, flawlessly. What happened after that was a course that no one could have or would have charted.
Many leading male golfers, including the top four in the world, all announced they would not play. As concerns grew over the mosquito-borne Zika virus, the entries began dropping like flies and reached a peak when Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and U.S. Open champion Dustin Johnson all pulled out. The field is greatly diminished — it will look like a middle-of-the-road PGA Tour stop — and so were hopes that Rio would spark a worldwide burst of interest in the game.
Tension about the game and the Games reached a peak on the eve of the British Open last month when McIlroy said during a news conference, “I didn’t get into golf to try to grow the game.” He added that he will be watching other sports from Rio on TV, calling those events “the stuff that matters.”
Others have used more diplomatic language, but they are still staying away, regardless. They are mindful that golf’s major championships and the Ryder Cup already are as important to them as the Olympics are to swimmers and sprinters. There also have been concerns that the golf season is too crowded and that the Olympic format, 72 holes of stroke play, is not inspiring.
So it will go on with a different feel than organizers had designed when they revived an event won in 1904 by Canadian George Lyon. The Rio Olympics has a full field in women’s golf, with all of the top players committed. And it has the course done by Hanse, who won the architecture rights over Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Greg Norman.
Hanse, 53, became consumed by golf and golf courses when he was a child, brought to Southward Ho Country Club in Bay Shore by his grandfather, longtime Babylon Village mayor Gilbert C. Hanse. The younger Hanse studied all kinds of course architecture and ultimately opened his own firm outside Philadelphia. Among his credits is Tallgrass Golf Course in Shoreham.
Perhaps his greatest legacy from Rio will be his decision to cover almost all of the course with a new strain of grass called Zeon Zoysia, which requires less water and fertilizer than other grasses and could thus foster developments in South America and other warm climates.
These Olympics also could provide a boost for the LPGA, which does not have the popularity of the men’s tours in America and Europe. Leading players, starting with No. 1 Lydia Ko of New Zealand, have been enthusiastic about the Games, regardless of Zika and talk of security problems in Brazil.
Aside from the high-profile men who are skipping the trip, other male golfers are just as upbeat. “When we dreamed about the Olympics, it was about every other sport. It was never about golf,” said Bubba Watson, who leads the U.S. contingent. “My dad was in Vietnam . . . so having the flag on my shoulder is very special.”
His American teammate Patrick Reed talked it over with his wife Justine — recognizing the potential for birth defects from Zika — and she was supportive. “Just thinking about it kind of gives me goosebumps,” Reed said during the PGA Championship. “Wearing stars and stripes, it’s going to be great.”
Sergio Garcia, who will play for Spain, said, “I’m excited about it. There’s a lot of question marks, I guess, but hopefully everything will run smoothly and we’ll be able to enjoy it.”
As nearly 20 male golfers were withdrawing, Jaco van Zyl of South Africa went against the grain. He pulled out of the British Open and PGA Championship just to get ready for the Games. “To me,” he told Sport24 in his country, “the Olympics is the pinnacle of all sporting events.”
It won’t be the pinnacle of golf this time, though. Perhaps 2020 in Japan will represent a Mulligan. Spieth said, “Like tennis struggled early to get guys to go, I think this was just a unique year that will certainly change in four years’ time.”