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.”
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.
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.