One year later: Olympics give golf global spark

By Rex HoggardAugust 21, 2017, 4:00 pm

As a catalyst for change, India’s Aditi Ashok didn’t exactly look as if she’d been plucked from Central Casting.

Golf’s return to the Olympics last fall for the first time in over a century was billed in some circles as the ultimate grow-the-game initiative, a chance to transform a sport that had long been considered the realm of the wealthy in many parts of the world into a bona fide competition worthy of a nation’s best.

In theory, the proponents explained, a chance to compete for medals at the Olympics would elevate golf in the eyes of many, which would generate interest and potential funding. In practice, it was the shy, rail-thin Ashok who stood as the standard-bearer when the then-18-year-old carded a second-round 68 to move into contention at the Olympic women’s competition and became an example of golf’s Olympic reach.

“Prior to golf coming back to the Olympics, there was very little that the [Indian Golf Union] got from the sports ministry in India,” said Dilip Thomas, the executive vice chairman of the Indian Golf Union. “Golf was also categorized as an elite sport and supposedly played by wealthy people. After the Olympics and following Aditi's performance in the early part of the event, the Indian government has started to look at golf through different eyes and now consider it to be a medal prospect for the country in the future.”

Full golf coverage from the Rio Olympic Games

But if Ashok’s impact on golf in India, where an estimated 1 in 10,000 people play the game, was predictable, a year removed from Olympic golf’s return, it has resonated beyond the Rio leaderboard.

In underdeveloped golf countries the Olympics provided a unique opportunity to educate the public, which a recent International Golf Federation study suggests goes beyond the reach of even the game’s majors and other marquee events, as well as a chance to leverage the game’s newfound status as an Olympic sport.

From China to Chile, national golf organizations have enjoyed an influx of interest and support that is unprecedented.

“In Argentina they’ve been able to gain funding from their national Olympic committee for their elite amateurs, which they wouldn’t have had,” said Antony Scanlon, the IGF executive director. “China has changed, now they have primary schools and high schools that have golf-specific development programs to create an elite pathway right up to professional golf.”

Prior to the ’16 Games, Scanlon explained that golf was a part of the sports ministry in China called the “small balls” department, which was mainly for non-Olympic sports. Now that it’s under its own umbrella, the opportunity for growth and support has increased dramatically.

That’s the power of a potential Olympic medal in countries where coming in third at the Games – which China’s Shanshan Feng did – could generate more interest than winning a major.

“Getting a medal is huge and it doesn’t make much difference, bronze, silver or gold, it’s a medal,” said Miguel Leeson, the former president of the Argentine Golf Association. “The Olympic movement has a lot of traction financially, so for countries like ours it’s really important. We get support from the high-performance center and we are a role model for other sports. We got into the Olympic movement and other sports are copying what we are doing.”

Although many of the gains golf has made in places like Argentina and China are anecdotal since last year’s closing ceremony, it’s the potential for support and recognition that has created optimism among administrators.

“The IGU secretariat has had discussions with the sports ministry and we have been told that a much larger level of financial assistance will be available in the years leading up to the 2018 Asian Games and the 2020 Olympics,” Thomas said.

Hoggard: One year later: Olympic course defies the odds

Even in places that didn’t send golfers to Rio, the Games have created opportunities that weren’t there before the Olympics, like in Puerto Rico, where the island’s Olympic committee has provided about $25,000 in funding for its golf association.

“It’s not a lot but it helps offset some of the expenses we have to travel to championships and prepare ourselves,” said Sidney Wolf, the president of the Puerto Rican Golf Association. “We have seen the funding that we didn’t see before. We are encouraged.”

But if the financial benefits created by the Games are encouraging, the interest among a largely non-golf public has generated the most optimism.

“We think it will be a good start and grow after this Olympic Games. We are making a lot of communication and marketing with [Fabrizio Zanotti and Julieta Granada, who both represented Paraguay in the Olympics],” said Hugo Fernandez, the president of the Paraguay Golf Association, who has created a marketing campaign called “Finding Olympic dreams” that targets school children.

The spike in interest in golf around the Games surprised even those who preached the mass appeal of the game’s return to the Olympic stage.

According to a recent study, there were more than 650 hours of golf coverage globally that reached more than 285 million households. More telling, however, was an IGF study that measured “fan engagements” via social media.

Golf ranked as the seventh-best Olympic sport in fan engagements with more than 190,000, just ahead of boxing and behind diving. Swimming was first with more than 780,000 engagements. (Engagements were defined as any social media post specific to a particular sport and included a four-month window, two months before and a month after the Games.)

To put that in context, that put Olympic golf ahead of every major played since 2013 and behind only the 2014 Ryder Cup.

“I knew we’d have new fans coming to watch, but that really surprised me,” Scanlon said. “That vindicates why we wanted to be a part of the Olympic program … to expand the reach of the game, and it certainly proved that.”

Scanlon also points to the expansion of the IGF, which leads golf’s efforts in the Olympics. In 2009, the foundation included 116 member organizations, but that has grown to 150. Each of those new members can now become part of their country’s Olympic committees.

Unlike at the Rio Games, the actual logistics of the Olympics becomes easier for golf moving forward, with established courses already in place for 2020 in Tokyo and in Paris, which will likely be named the site of the 2024 Games in September at the IOC’s Executive Board meeting in Peru.

But for Scanlon and those tasked with turning golf’s Olympic dream into reality, the challenge moving forward is how the game leverages that unparalleled attention into more resources and grassroots interest in underdeveloped countries.

“How do we convert that sort of three- or four-month window of excitement about golf in the Olympics and put a golf club in hand?” Scanlon asked. “That’s the challenge for me working through to Tokyo.”

With golf now firmly established in the Olympic rotation, officials now recognize that the key to continued change will come from the most unlikely places, like an 18-year-old who captivates a nation with her play.

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Confident Lincicome lurking after 54 holes at Founders

By Randy SmithMarch 18, 2018, 2:45 am

PHOENIX – Brittany Lincicome is farther back than she wanted to be going into Sunday at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, but she’s in a good place.

She’s keeping the momentum of her season-opening Pure Silk Bahamas Classic victory going this year.

Her confidence is high.

“Last year, I won in the Bahamas, but then I didn't do anything after that,” Lincicome said. “I don't even know if I had a top 10 after my win in the Bahamas. Obviously, this year, I want to be more consistent.”

Lincicome followed up her victory in the Bahamas this year with a tie for seventh in her next start at the Honda LPGA Thailand. And now she’s right back on another leaderboard with the year’s first major championship just two weeks away. She is, by the way, a two-time winner at the ANA Inspiration.

Missy Pederson, Lincicome’s caddie, is helping her player keep that momentum going with more focus on honing in the scoring clubs.

“One of our major goals is being more consistent,” Pederson said. “She’s so talented, a once in a generation talent. I’m just trying to help out in how to best approach every golf course.”

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

Pederson has helped Lincicome identify the clubs they’re likely to attack most with on the particular course they are playing that week, to spend more time working with those clubs in practice. It’s building confidence.

“I know the more greens we hit, and the more chances we give ourselves, the more our chances are to be in contention,” Pederson said. “Britt is not big into stats or details, so I have to figure out how to best consolidate that information, to get us exactly where we need to be.”

Lincicome’s growing comfort with clubs she can attack with is helping her confidence through a round.

“I’ve most noticed consistency in her mental game, being able to handle some of the hiccups that happen over the course of a round,” Pederson said. “Whereas before, something might get under her skin, where she might say, `That’s what always happens,’ now, it’s, `All right, I know I’m good enough to get this back.’ I try to get her in positions to hit the clubs we are really hitting well right now.”

That’s leading to a lot more birdies, fewer bogeys and more appearances on leaderboards in the start to this year.

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Returning Park grabs 54-hole Founders lead

By Randall MellMarch 18, 2018, 2:09 am

PHOENIX – In the long shadows falling across Wildfire Golf Club late Saturday afternoon, Inbee Park conceded she was tempted to walk away from the game last year.

While healing a bad back, she was tempted to put her clubs away for good and look for a second chapter for her life.

But then . . .

“Looking at the girls playing on TV, you think you want to be out there” Park said. “Really, I couldn't make my mind up when I was taking that break, but as soon as I'm back here, I just feel like this is where I belong.”

In just her second start after seven months away from the LPGA, Park is playing like she never left.

She’s atop a leaderboard at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, looking like that’s exactly where she belongs.

With a 9-under-par 63 Saturday, Park seized the lead going into the final round.

At 14 under overall, she’s one shot ahead of Mariajo Uribe (67), two ahead of Ariya Jutanugarn (68) and three ahead of 54-year-old World Golf Hall of Famer Laura Davies (63) and Chella Choi (66).

Park’s back with a hot putter.

That’s not good news for the rest of the tour. Nobody can demoralize a field with a flat stick like Park. She’s one of the best putters the women’s game has ever seen, and on the front nine Saturday she looked as good as she ever has.

“The front nine was scary,” said her caddie, Brad Beecher, who was on Park’s bag for her long run at world No. 1, her run of three consecutive major championship victories in 2013 and her gold medal victory at the Olympics two years ago.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

“The front nine was great . . . like 2013,” Park said.

Park started her round on fire, going birdie-birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie. She was 6 under through five holes. She holed a wedge from 98 yards at the third hole, making the turn having taken just 10 putts. Yeah, she said, she was thinking about shooting 59.

“But I'm still really happy with my round today,” she said.

Park isn’t getting ahead of herself, even with this lead. She said her game isn’t quite where she wants it with the ANA Inspiration, the year’s first major championship, just two weeks away, but a victory Sunday should go a long way toward getting her there.

Park is only 29. LPGA pros haven’t forgotten what it was like when she was dominating, when she won 14 times between 2013 and ’15.

They haven’t forgotten how she can come back from long layoffs with an uncanny ability to pick up right where she left off.

Park won the gold medal in Rio de Janeiro in her first start back after missing two months because of a ligament injury in her left thumb. She took eight months off after Rio and came back to win the HSBC Women’s World Championship last year in just her second start. She left the tour again in the summer with an aching back.

“I feel like Inbee could take off a whole year or two years and come back and win every week,” said Brittany Lincicome, who is four shots behind Park. “Her game is just so consistent. She doesn't do anything flashy, but her putting is flashy.

“She literally walks them in. It's incredible, like you know it's going in when she hits it. It's not the most orthodox looking stroke, but she can repeat it.”

Park may not play as full a schedule as she has in the past, Beecher said, but he believes she can thrive with limited starts.

“I think it helps her get that fight back, to get that hunger back,” Beecher said. “She knows she can play 15 events a year and still compete. There aren’t a lot of players who can do that.”

Park enjoyed her time away last year, and how it re-energized her.

“When I was taking the long break, I was just thinking, `I can do this life as well,’” Park said. “But I'm glad I came back out here. Obviously, days like today, that's the reason I'm playing golf.”

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Joh on St. Patrick's ace: Go broke buying green beers

By Randall MellMarch 18, 2018, 12:57 am

PHOENIX – Tiffany Joh was thrilled making a run into contention to win her first LPGA title Saturday at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, but she comically cracked that her hole-in-one might have been ill-timed.

It came on St. Patrick’s Day.

“This is like the worst holiday to be making a hole-in-one on,” Joh said. “You'll go broke buying everyone green beers.”

Joh aced the fifth hole with a 5-iron from 166 yards on her way to an 8-under-par 64. It left her four shots behind the leader, Inbee Park (63).

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

One of the more colorful players on tour, Joh said she made the most of her hole-in-one celebration with playing partner Jane Park.

“First I ran and tackled Jane, then I high-fived like every single person walking to the green,” Joh said.

Joh may be the LPGA’s resident comedian, but she faced a serious challenge on tour last year.  Fourteen months ago, she had surgery to remove a malignant melanoma. She won the LPGA’s Heather Farr Perseverance Award for the way she handled her comeback.

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Davies, 54, still thinks she can win, dreams of HOF

By Randall MellMarch 18, 2018, 12:22 am

PHOENIX – Laura Davies limped around Wildfire Golf Club Saturday with an ache radiating from her left Achilles up into her calf muscle at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup.

“Every step is just misery,” Davies said after. “It’s just getting older. Don’t get old.”

She’s 54, but she played the third round as if she were 32 again.

That’s how old she was when she was the LPGA’s Rolex Player of the Year and won two major championships.

With every sweet swing Saturday, Davies peeled back the years, turning back the clock.

Rolling in a 6-foot birdie at the 17th, Davies moved into a tie for the lead with Inbee Park, a lead that wouldn’t last long with so many players still on the course when she finished. Still, with a 9-under-par 63, Davies moved into contention to try to become the oldest winner in LPGA history.

Davies has won 20 LPGA titles, 45 Ladies European Tour titles, but she hasn’t won an LPGA event in 17 years, since taking the Wegmans Rochester International.

Can she can surpass the mark Beth Daniel set winning at 46?

“I still think I can win,” Davies said. “This just backs that up for me. Other people, I don’t know, they’re always asking me now when I’m going to retire. I always say I’m still playing good golf, and now here’s the proof of it.”

Davies knows it will take a special day with the kind of final-round pressure building that she hasn’t experienced in awhile.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

“The pressure will be a lot more tomorrow,” she said. “We'll see, won’t sleep that well tonight. The good news is that I’ll probably be four or five behind by the end of the day, so the pressure won’t be there as much.”

Davies acknowledged confidence is harder to garner, as disappointments and missed cuts pile up, but she’s holding on to her belief she can still win.

“I said to my caddie, `Jeez, I haven't been on top of the leaderboard for a long time,’” Davies said. “That's nice, obviously, but you’ve got to stay there. That's the biggest challenge.”

About that aching left leg, Davies was asked if it could prevent her from challenging on Sunday.

“I’ll crawl around if I have to,” she said.

Saturday’s 63 was Davies’ lowest round in an LPGA event since she shot 63 at the Wendy’s Championship a dozen years ago.

While Davies is a World Golf Hall of Famer, she has been sitting just outside the qualification standard needed to get into the LPGA Hall of Fame for a long time. She needs 27 points, but she has been stuck on 25 since her last victory in ’01. A regular tour title is worth one point, a major championship is worth two points.

Davies said she still dreams about qualifying.

“You never know,” she said.