Will Olympic fields hold fans' interest?


The International Golf Federation will announce next week at Royal Liverpool the creation of a ranking that will track the fields for the 2016 Olympics and likely give an update on the progress of the golf course that will host the Games in two years.

While the rankings promise to be eye-opening for many, the word on Gil Hanse’s stalled project in Rio de Janeiro remains unchanged, but then growing grass is no one’s national pastime.

The rankings for the Olympic fields will dovetail with the Official World Golf Ranking for the men and Rolex Rankings for the women, drawing the top 60 players that would make up the fields for golf’s return to the Olympic stage.

The idea is to provide players, media and fans a weekly update of the Olympic field, but the rankings may leave some wondering if golf will be playing for gold in Rio or some watered-down World Golf Championship trophy.

By design, the selection process to earn a spot in Rio casts a wide net. A country can have up to four players qualify for the ’16 Games if they are ranked within the top 15 on July 11, 2016, the deadline for both fields. After that the fields will be filled out with the highest-ranked players with a maximum of two players per country.

While infinitely inclusive, the process promises to create fields that will cause a few double takes.

Using this week’s world golf ranking, Golf Channel crunched the numbers to create what the men’s Olympic field would look like. Among the normal cast of characters were some surprising additions to the Rio tee sheet.

Along with Bubba Watson, Matt Kuchar, Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth – the U.S. is currently the only country to have four players in the top 15 – and Adam Scott and Jason Day, Australia’s lineup, would be Chan Shih-chang from Chinese Taipei at 266th in the world.

The current field would also include Antonio Lascuna and Juvic Pagunsan from the Philippines at Nos. 268 and 278, respectively; Brazil’s Adilson da Silva at 275 and Portugal’s Ricardo Santos at 285.

And Santos isn’t even the highest-ranked player in the current field. That honor belongs to Nicholas Fung from Malaysia, who is 290th in the world.

The field for the women’s event may go even deeper into the Rolex Rankings, with officials estimating they could dip to 400th in the world to fill the tee sheet in 2016.

Olympic qualifying is broad by design, and, honestly, if you want to see the game’s deepest field go toe-to-toe, tune in for the PGA Championship. But officials must know this will be a tough sell to the average golf fan who is accustomed to a steady diet of the world’s top players from Augusta National to Akron, Ohio.

An official with the IGF recently explained to your scribe that during the 2008 Beijing Games there were plenty of similarly high-ranked players competing against the world’s best in various sports.

The difference is in sports like swimming there are layers of qualifying that would keep a developing player like Fung from going head-to-head with the likes of Woods or Scott. In Rio, however, the Malaysian will dig a tee into the ground next to major champions and world-beaters.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the concept, just don’t expect it to pass the taste test for some fans.

In the Olympics the more inclusive an event can be, the greater impact it can have on the global growth of the game, and the selection process for the ’16 Games certainly delivers on that front.

There would be 35 countries represented based on the current ranking, but that competitive potpourri has also produced a field that includes 24 players who rank outside the top 100 in the world.

The opportunity for Fung and Santos to compete is sure to increase golf’s exposure in Malaysia and Brazil, but for fans in developed golf nations, like England, the United States and Australia, it’s simply going take some getting used to.

Similar to what officials experienced with tennis, there will be push-back from core fans who fail to see the romance of an Olympic tee sheet with a less-than-stellar strength of field.

The IGF doesn’t need to change the way it selects the fields for the ’16 Games, but it may want to start preaching the importance of inclusiveness. They have 758 days to make their case.