Dan Jansen is more likely to be in golf spikes than speed skates these days, but his experience as an Olympic champion is never far from his mind.
As a boy in West Allis, Wis., the Olympics were the reason to drive hundreds of miles across state lines to compete in tournaments. It was the reason to wake up when the sky was still dark. It was the reason to skate that icy oval until his hamstrings burned.
When Jansen finally became an Olympian, he was met with great joy but also tremendous heartbreak, most notably when his sister, Jane, died the day he was scheduled to compete in the 500 meters in Calgary in 1988. Jansen, dedicating his race to her, fell to the ice just 100 meters in. Four days later, in the 1,000 meters, he fell again.
In his fourth Olympics, at Lillehammer in 1994, he finally outraced his past and the competition, winning gold, setting a world record and hearing “The Star Spangled Banner.”
“Never in my life have I felt more patriotic than when I had the honor of hearing our national anthem,” Jansen said in a recent interview. “I won 46 World Cup races and a bunch of world championship races, but that song never sounded like that.”
Jansen, like many observers, sees golf’s return to the Olympics as a potential boon for a game looking for growth. But he also wonders if professional athletes can grasp the special meaning of the Games, especially when compared with major championships.
Professional golf at the highest level is awash in big-time events – four majors, The Players, four World Golf Championships, a Ryder Cup, a Presidents Cup and a lucrative FedEx Cup chase with four playoff events.
The LPGA added a fifth major in 2013 and the International Crown in 2014, not to mention the growing popularity of the biennial Solheim Cup.
Tom Watson, who calls the majors “the pinnacle of golf,” contends that golf simply should not be in the Olympics. Adam Scott, the former world No. 1, said in December that Olympic golf should at least be limited to amateurs, the better the chance to grow the game globally.
“People watch us (professionals) play 45 weeks a year,” Scott said, adding that he wants to play in the Olympics but the majors are his focus.
To Jansen, therein lies the conflict.
“It’s kind of hard for me to hear the top players in the world say the Olympics will not be their top priority, even that year – it will be their fifth at best,” he said. “I feel this about all professional sports in the Olympics. I completely understand why an NBA player would rather win a title, a hockey player a Stanley Cup, a golfer a major.
“But for most amateur athletes, the Olympic Games are the ultimate prize from the time we could dream. That was our 3-footer to win the Masters, our buzzer-beater to win a title. The fact that they make millions playing their respective sports is not a problem for me. But if the Olympics isn’t the priority, please don’t come.”
It’s an understandable sentiment.
The Olympics are precious, a once-every-four-year proposition, or, in many cases, a once-in-a-lifetime one. They are fleeting moments born of years of toil.
For the most part, the golfers are saying the right things so far.
They realize that people from around the globe may be watching golf for the first time, and that the potential for exponential growth is real.
But will the golfers truly grind for an Olympic medal the way they grind for a green jacket? Can golf find someone like pro tennis’ Andy Murray, the Scot who won Olympic gold at the All-England Club and proclaimed he wouldn’t trade his medal for a Wimbledon title.
“There’s no doubt the four major championships are the pinnacle of the game right now,” Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion, said during the PGA Merchandise Show. “Golf has not been a part of the Olympics since 1904. We have a lot of learning to do, we have a lot of understanding to do. I believe the legacy in golf will grow as players experience it, [and] as we witness the first golfer standing on the podium with a gold medal around their necks, listening to their national anthem.
“Until that point, I don’t think we’ll understand the impact it’s going to have on the world of golf.”
Said Rickie Fowler, when asked about golf and the Olympics: “It’s a dream come true that you haven’t dreamt of because golf was never in it.”
A few weeks ago, PGA Tour rookies Justin Thomas and Carlos Ortiz were talking about the start of their careers when the subject of the Olympics came up.
Ortiz, who is from Mexico, was excited about both of their prospects to qualify.
“You’re going to make it,” Ortiz told Thomas, who fired back with a laugh.
“Dude, I’ve got like 100 people to pass [to qualify for the United States],” Thomas said. “Have fun in Brazil.”
The best news may be that two young players are talking about the Olympics in the midst of their first spin around the PGA Tour. It shows that they care. But if golf in the Olympics is to truly thrive, Thomas and Ortiz will need plenty of company.