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.

Ryu, S.H. Park among winners at Rolex awards

By Randall MellNovember 17, 2017, 5:51 pm

NAPLES, Fla. – The Rolex Player of the Year and Vare Trophy winners won’t be determined until Sunday’s finish of the CME Group Tour Championship, but seven other awards were presented Thursday during the LPGA’s Rolex Awards dinner at the Ritz Carlton Golf Resort.

The awards and winners:

William and Mousie Powell Award – Katherine Kirk won an award given to the player “whose behavior and deeds best exemplify the spirit, ideals and values of the LPGA.” Kirk won the Thornberry Classic this year, her third LPGA title. “Some people ask me if I feel obligated to give back to the game,” Kirk said. “I think it’s a privilege.”

Heather Farr Perseverance Award – Tiffany Joh, who had surgery to remove a malignant melanoma earlier this year, thanked the Farr family and all those who supported Joh through her diagnosis and recovery.

“I found a great quote from Ram Dass, `We are all just walking each other home,’” Joh said. “I’ve really come to understand the value of all my relationships, no matter how fleeting or profound they seem.”

The Commissioner’s Award – Roberta Bowman, outgoing chair of the LPGA Board of Directors, was honored for her service the last six years. LPGA commissioner Mike Whan called her “my friend, my boss and my hero.” Bowman deflected the praise for her back on to the tour, thanking Whan, LPGA staff, players, sponsors, fans and the media.

“The world needs more role models for little girls,” Bowman said. “And they don’t need to look much farther than the LPGA.”

Ellen Griffin Rolex Award and Nancy Lopez Golf Achievement Award – Sandy LaBauve, who founded the LPGA-USGA Girls’ Golf program, was honored as the first person to win both these awards.

The Griffin Award honors golf teachers and the Lopez Award honors an LPGA professional who emulates the values Lopez demonstrated. LaBauve is the daughter of Jack and Sherry Lumpkin, both teachers of the game.

“This program doesn’t belong to me,” LaBauve said of LPGA-Girls’ Golf. “I merely planted the seed. The fruit belongs to all of us.”

Rolex Annika Major Award – So Yeon Ryu won the award, named for Annika Sorenstam, for the best overall performance in women’s major championships this year. She won the ANA Inspiration and tied for third at the U.S. Women’s Open.

“It’s such an honor to win an award named after Annika Sorenstam,” Ryu told Sorenstam during the presentation. “It’s a special award for me.”

Rolex Rookie of the Year Award – Sung Hyun Park won the honor, telling the audience in a message translated from Korean that she was disappointed failing to win the KLPGA’s Rookie of the Year Award and was grateful for a dream come true getting the chance to win it on the LPGA.

Def. champ Fitzpatrick grabs lead at Euro finale

By Associated Press, Golf Channel DigitalNovember 17, 2017, 1:50 pm

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Defending champion Matthew Fitzpatrick shot a second straight 5-under-par 67 to secure a one-stroke lead halfway through the European Tour's season-ending Tour Championship on Friday.

At 10 under after two rounds on the Earth course of Jumeirah Golf Estate, Fitzpatrick leads English compatriot Tyrrell Hatton, whom he beat by one shot to win the title last year.

Hatton moved into contention with a brilliant 9-under 63, a round soured only by a closing bogey on the par-5 18th hole.

In the Race to Dubai, main protagonists Tommy Fleetwood and Justin Rose experienced contrasting emotions to their opening rounds. Fleetwood boosted his chances by rising into a tie for 11th at 6 under after a 65. Rose endured a three-putt bogey on the 18th to finish with a 70, and dropped on the leaderboard so he's just two shots ahead of Fleetwood.

Masters champion Sergio Garcia, the only other player with a chance to win the Order of Merit, stayed in contention by adding a 69 to his opening 70 to be one shot behind Fleetwood.


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Full-field scores from the DP World Tour Championship


Fleetwood needs to equal or better Rose's finishing position to claim the title. If Rose doesn't finish in the top five and Garcia doesn't win, Fleetwood will have done enough.

Fitzpatrick made two bogeys but eagled the 14th, and five birdies contributed to his 67.

Overnight leader Patrick Reed is now three back following an even-par 72. Reed is in the field thanks to a European Tour regulation that allows the Presidents Cup to count as an official event, thus allowing him to meet his quota of tournaments played.

Fitzpatrick was helped immensely also by the 18th, where Hatton, Rose, and Reed all made bogeys. Fitzpatrick birdied the hole for a second straight day with a 25-foot putt.

''I said to my caddie, we were putting really, really well all week so far,'' Fitzpatrick said.

''The thing is, you get so many fast putts around here, even uphill into the green, they are still running at 12, 13 (on the stimpmeter) even. You've just got to be really sort of careful. Every putt is effectively a two-putt. You've got to control your pace well and limit your mistakes, because it's easy to three-putt out here.''

Rose, hoping to win a third straight tournament after triumphs in China and Turkey, was disappointed with his finish despite playing solid golf from tee to green.

''To make six (on 18) just ends the day on the wrong note, but other than that, I played really well on the back nine,'' Rose said.

''I was aware of the scores and who had done what today. But listen, halfway stage, I'd probably have signed up for that if somebody said on Wednesday you would be in this position after two rounds. It's a position you can build on the weekend.''

Fleetwood resurrected his chances of winning the Order of Merit with a 65, eight shots better than his opening round. His only bogey of the day came on the seventh after an errant drive, but that was the only mistake on a solid day that saw him make eight birdies.

Fleetwood spent hours on the putting green after his first round.

''I needed a low one today for (a tournament win and the Order of Merit),'' he said. ''Luckily, I got a good score.''

Closing eagle gives Kirk 1-shot lead in RSM

By Rex HoggardNovember 17, 2017, 12:16 am

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. - Chris Kirk holed an 18-foot putt for eagle on his final hole for a 9-under 63 and a one-shot lead Thursday in the RSM Classic.

Kirk played the par 5s on the Plantation Course at Sea Island Golf Club in 5 under.

''I kind of hit my putter on the fringe a little bit and I wasn't sure it was going to get there, but that was just kind of the day that it was,'' Kirk said. ''Even when I thought it wasn't quite going to work out, it still went in the middle of the hole.''

The seven lowest scores of the opening round came on the Plantation Course during a picturesque afternoon on the Golden Isles. Sporting a University of Georgia hat Thursday, Kirk won at Sea Island four years ago for the second of his four PGA Tour victories.

''It's a big Georgia territory out here on St. Simons,'' Kirk said. ''Hopefully, my hat will bring me some luck the rest of the week.''

The tournament is the final PGA Tour event of the calendar year, and Kirk is sorting out equipment changes.

''I'm still trying to get it all worked out and figure out what I want to do going forward,'' Kirk said. ''But keep shooting 9 under, so I won't have to worry about it too much.'

Joel Dahmen had a 64.


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Full-field scores from the RSM Classic


''I think it played a little easier today,'' Dahmen said. ''The wind was down, greens were a little softer over here on the Plantation side. But just kept the ball in front of me and made a bunch of 8- to 10-footers.

''I've been rolling it pretty good,'' Swafford said. ''Took some time off, which was nice, after China. I was kind of frustrated with the golf a little bit. Took a little time off and got back into it. Something just kind of started clicking, but knew I don't have to be crazy aggressive and just give myself a chance.''

Sea Island resident Hudson Swafford was at 65 at the Plantation along with Jason Kokrak and Brian Gay.

''I feel like I've been rolling it pretty good,'' Swafford said. ''Took some time off, which was nice, after China. I was kind of frustrated with the golf a little bit. Took a little time off and got back into it. Something just kind of started clicking, but knew I don't have to be crazy aggressive and just give myself a chance.''

He played alongside fellow former Georgia players Bubba Watson and Brian Harman.

''We are right in the heart of Dawgs' territory, mine and Harman's backyard, so it's kind of nice,'' Swafford said.

Though, his caddie wore an Auburn shirt.

''We don't need to talk about that,'' said Swafford, not needing to be reminded that Auburn beat Georgia in football last week.

Nick Watney and Brice Garnett each had a 5-under 65 on the Seaside Course, which will be used for the final two rounds.

Brandt Snedeker opened with a 67 in his first return from a sternum injury that sidelined him since the Travelers in June.

Harman shot 69, and Watson had a 71.

Co-leader Smith credits Foley's influence

By Randall MellNovember 16, 2017, 11:33 pm

NAPLES, Fla. – Sarah Jane Smith is making the most of the devoted efforts of Sean Foley this week.

Foley’s prize pupil, Justin Rose, is in the hunt at the World Tour Championship in the United Arab Emirates, looking to win the European Tour’s Race to Dubai, but Foley isn’t there with him.

Foley promised to help Smith this week, and he’s living up to the pledge, making the trip to Naples.

“At 33, Sarah is in her prime,” Foley told GolfChannel.com. “She is going to hold a trophy at some point. She is too skilled not to win.”

Foley's extra attention is paying off for Smith.


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Full-field scores from the CME Group Tour Championship


With a 6-under-par 66, Smith moved into early contention to make her first LPGA title memorable at the CME Group Tour Championship. She’s tied for the first-round lead with Taiwan rookie Peiyun Chien.

“I just seem to play my best with him,” Smith said.

Foley, the former coach to Tiger Woods, was No. 10 in Golf Digest’s Top 100 teacher rankings released this fall.

Foley sees a lot coming together in Smith’s game. She is a 12-year veteran building some momentum. She tied for third at the Women’s Australian Open earlier this year and is coming off three consecutive top-15 finishes in Asia. She is sixth on tour in birdies this season. 

“As a coach, you try to get a player to see something in themselves that is already there,” Foley said.

Rose, by the way, opened with a 6-under-par 66 in Dubai and is one shot off the lead.