Friday 23 March 2018

Golf's grand return to Games

The sport is finally back in the Olympics, and the lack of a dominant player opens things up

Finishing touches are put to the course for the Games, where designers 'faced the challenge of building a layout worthy of the Olympics, but which could later become a municipal facility'. Photo: Getty Images
Finishing touches are put to the course for the Games, where designers 'faced the challenge of building a layout worthy of the Olympics, but which could later become a municipal facility'. Photo: Getty Images

Dermot Gilleece

Golf returns to the Olympic Games this week, after a Major season in which presentation podiums have featured four first-time winners. Only time will tell if events in Rio de Janeiro have embellished a competitive scene where not only the faces, but the quality of the scoring has been different in the absence of a dominant player.

Similarities are quite remarkable between the current, post-Tiger Woods era and that which followed the 18th and final Major triumph by Jack Nicklaus, 30 years ago.

In the 34 Majors since the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines marked the last of Woods's 14 titles, there have been 21 first-time winners, including this year's quartet. The 34 Majors which followed the Bear's US Masters triumph of 1986 also delivered exactly the same number of first-time winners - 21.

Of course, it could be no more than a coincidence. It could also be argued that PGA champion Jimmy Walker may have been less intimidated by the dramatic, late surge from current world number one, Jason Day, than might have been the case in the Tiger era.

Yet against that, Woods played in all four Majors in 2003, when there were also four first-timers in Mike Weir, Jim Furyk, Ben Curtis and Shaun Micheel. When the same thing happened in 2011, he was also present - tied fourth - for Charl Schwartzel's victory at Augusta National, though knee and Achilles tendon injuries caused him to miss the US Open at Congressional, where Rory McIlroy triumphed, and the Open Championship at Royal St George's, where Darren Clarke gained a long-awaited breakthrough.

The most significant developments of the immediate post-Nicklaus era were the emergence of Nick Faldo as a six-time Major champion, and the failure of Greg Norman to translate his dominance in the world rankings into more than two Major victories.

Now, it's the way the upsurge in competitive expression contrasts with the Tiger era - which seemed to stifle the undoubted skills of truly gifted exponents such as Ernie Els and, to a lesser extent, Phil Mickelson.

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Which prompts the thought that Woods dominated as much by the power of his personality as by his wonderful golf. His very presence on a tee was enough to intimidate opponents - indeed, Els admitted as much - and Nicklaus exuded the same self-confidence and unwavering focus.

Are we about to see one of the current crop achieve comparable dominance? I doubt it. Skill alone is not enough and, by his own admission, McIlroy lacks the intensity to do it. I don't see the Woods intimidation in Day either, or in Ricky Fowler or Bubba Watson. And certainly not in Dustin Johnson.

Jordan Spieth, however, has many of the Nicklaus competitive qualities, especially with the blade. Little more than a week past his 23rd birthday, he has already achieved much, with eight PGA Tour victories, including last year's Masters and US Open titles.

This is what makes him the most interesting pretender, in my view. Having shown last year that he has the confidence and steel to break clear of the pack, his next attempt at doing so, with the benefit of experience, will be observed with particular interest.

Meanwhile, thoughts of the Olympics bring to mind the build-up to the 2000 Games in Sydney, where the closest that golf and golfers got to the competitive arena was when Australia's Karrie Webb and Norman carried the torch. Mind you, there was also a striking television commercial in which the admirably athletic Woods used a golf-club as a javelin.

Since then, Webb and Norman have had another shot at Olympic involvement. When Nicklaus stole a march on his rivals by including Annika Sorenstam in his design bid for the Olympic golf course in Rio, Peter Thomson followed suit by bringing Webb into his team. And for his design bid, Norman called on Mexico's former world number one, Lorena Ochoa.

The contest finalists, in the order they presented their bids were: Gary Player, Norman, Gil Hanse, Martin Hawtree, Nicklaus, Tom Doak, Robert Trent Jones Jnr and Thomson. The process wasn't without petty jealousies with Norman's design, which included quite a few parallel holes, being dismissed by a rival as "a package of sausages".

In the event, from eight design companies, the contract was awarded to Philadelphia-based Hanse, in association with American Golf Hall of Fame inductee, Amy Alcott. According to Ron Whitten of Golf Digest Ireland, bidders were each prepared to spend at least $75,000 on their presentations, and two of them reportedly spent more than $100,000.

This represented quite an investment for a contract carrying a relatively modest design-fee of $300,000 - and very modest compared with the $2m, for instance, that Nicklaus was paid for his work at Killeen Castle. Granted, travel expenses were reimbursed, but within three months of being selected, the winning architect had to agree to establish a subsidiary office in Rio, while taking on a Brazilian partner for landscaping work.

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Against this background, it was considered entirely understandable that the celebrated design team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw declined to bid for the project. Another notable absentee was Tom Fazio, who did splendid work on upgrading Waterville and is currently involved in remodelling Adare Manor for JP McManus.

Either way, Fazio's prospects were most likely seriously compromised by Faldo's proposal that the American produce a routing on which he (Faldo) and 17 other professional golf legends would each design one hole. As Whitten suggested: "If a camel is a horse designed by a committee, what do you call a golf course designed by committee? A gamble."

Another novel approach among the final group was from Player who, entirely predictably, emphasised how he had promoted golf around the world, including Brazil, through past tournament appearances. His design company replicated the Olympic logo's five interlocking rings, through a series of crescent-shaped ponds across the site.

Whatever their motivation, it was acknowledged that the bidders weren't driven by a direct financial return. In fact, it was generally accepted that the venture would involve a financial loss, though there was the prospect of future design work in that part of the world. All bidders seemed genuinely anxious to help the growth of golf internationally, through Olympic exposure.

Faced with the challenge of building a layout worthy of the Olympics, but which could later become a municipal facility, Hanse, according to Whitten, "sought to test a professional golfer's mental acumen and physical skills with a course that looks simple but contains complexities not readily apparent".

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In attempting to emulate the philosophy of the great Sandbelt courses like Royal Melbourne and Kingston Heath in Australia, the designer said he had built a layout with "extreme width, tightly maintained turf throughout, surrounded by native scrub and sand. Off the back tees, players must carry sections of scrubby waste". And his aim in shaping greens and their surrounds was "to keep the golfer engaged and hopeful". This would be achieved through tightly-mown pockets of grass next to the putting surface.

All of which should suit the short-game skills of Pádraig Harrington, who will represent Ireland this week with Seamus Power, to be followed a week later by Leona Maguire and Stephanie Meadow in the women's event. Our men's duo is not alone in showing quite a change from the line-ups we anticipated last March.

That was when McIlroy and Shane Lowry looked set to fly the flag, while the US would be represented by Spieth, Watson, Fowler and Dustin Johnson. Since then, Patrick Reed and Matt Kuchar have replaced Spieth and Johnson, and Gerina Piller has replaced Cristie Kerr in the US women's team - as a colleague for Lexi Thompson and Stacy Lewis.

Most noteworthy, however, are Britain's Justin Rose and Danny Willett, who were set fair for Rio even before the Yorkshireman's Masters triumph in April. Two years prior to that, incidentally, Harrington was mischievously expressing the hope that McIlroy would, in fact, declare for Britain, so as to leave a vacancy in the Irish side that he could fill.

Now, the revitalised Dubliner is about to become one of the most distinguished challengers on Hanse's handiwork. Which, in its way, must rival this season's Major quartet as one of the more interesting products of a funny old game.

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