Olympic Golf Didn't Need a Bronze Medal Playoff


Photo by Kyle Dias on Unsplash

Over the last four years, Rickie Fowler has been lightly teased about his Olympics tattoo which adorns his forearm. The Rio Olympics in 2016 were the first Olympics to have golf in decades, many players gladly skipped it, some without reason beyond disinterest; others were worried about the risk of zika. This year, at a pandemic Olympics, even without fans, the event gathered a bit more steam, as events tend to do over time. The Olympic spirit is an overwhelming energy that even seeped it’s way into Rory McIlroy’s brain in about four days.


He admitted his attitude before the event wasn’t what it should have been and that some of his statements were “impulsive.” More refreshing honesty from McIlroy. After the fourth round and subsequent playoff, he said he had never tried so hard for third place before. With all the backdoor top tens McilRoy has walked though in the last six years, I’m not sure that comment was entirely true. But the sentiment certainly makes sense, the prospect of winning an Olympic medal would make any competitive person dig a little bit deeper. The experience as a whole might even make a participant get a tattoo.


McIlroy was one of seven golfers to finish with their hands on a bronze medal.


Seven!


That’s quite a logjam in third place, and they should have each earned a medal. What’s the harm in handing out a bronze medal to each of the competitors who finished in bronze position after 72 holes of golf. Medals have been shared for a lot less in past Olympics. Besides if the goal is the use this event to grow the game, bronze medal winners from Chinese Taipei, Colombia, Chile, and Japan could have had quite the impact. Toss in a

South African/ Slovak winning the silver medal and suddenly we have a handful of countries that might have a bit of interest in golf. Instead, seven players entered a playoff for one bronze medal that Chinese Taipei’s C.T Pan won. The playoff took two hours, taking the steam out of the event.


When it comes to medals, one gold medal should be handed out, but silver and bronze in an event like golf should have multiple medal winners. Over the next five Olympics, a seven man playoff might be the exception and not the rule. And having seven bronze medalists on the podium would genuinely look ridiculous. But it’s how the event is set up. Stroke play leads to ties. A gold medal playoff would be exceptional, but bronze? Blah.


On Sunday two high jumpers, Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim and Italy's Gianmarco Tamberi, were tied after they both failed to clear the highest bar. They were the only two jumpers left. Instead of doing a jump off for gold, they decided they were finished jumping and would share the golf medal instead. It was an odd scene watching two men celebrate the gold. They are close friends, and Barshim even helped Tamberi recover from a major injury, which made it possible for Tamberi to compete at all in this Olympics.


In boxing, two bronze medals are handed out to the losers of the semi-final fights. There’s no bronze medal fight. Sharing medals happens frequently enough that there is a wikipedia page to track the occurrences. There has been at least one podium spot shared in every Olympics since London in… 1948. Gymnastics, track and field, and swimming are the sports that give out multiple podium spots the most. Gymnasts seems like an odd one given the judging, but it’s happened quite a bit in individual events.


Track and field and swimming, however, are more similar to golf - a field of competitors vying for medals and sometimes there’s a tie in the race. In the 2016 Olympics Simone Manuel and Penny Oleksiak touched the wall in the 100 meter freestyle at exactly the same time. Both received gold medals and there was no silver handed out. In the 100 meter backstroke Kylie Masse and Fu Yuanhui both won bronze medals. Four women on the podium, and history doesn’t seem to mind the image.


Imagine if those swimmers had to dry off, hop back on the starting block, and swim head-to-head for a medal? I bet they wouldn’t. So why after four days and 72 holes of golf are we asking golfers who finished in third to play another two hours of golf.


Sports that don’t have this problem are the ones where teams play head-to-head. A gold medal basketball game is going to overtime. A soccer game might reach penalty kicks.


The other way around this problem would be if golf mixed up the formatting and had a match-play or team event for medals. Rory McIlroy mentioned after his fourth round that Olympic golf reminded him of the fun he had playing as a youngster when no money was on the table. So why not lean into that feeling and set-up the event like an amateur event - 36 holes of stroke play to qualify for match-play. It’s a wonderful, tried and true format. There were 60 golfers in the field this week. Cut the field to 16 after 36 holes of stroke play. Then have the four rounds of match play over the course of 2 days. The event is still four days long, and there’s even more golf to show.


There’s all sorts of ideas for how to fix Olympic golf. Ultimately, the most important thing for Olympic golf is that it continues into the future. The next two Olympics are in Paris and Los Angeles. Olympic golf isn’t designed to grow the game of golf in the United States, look at any public or private tee sheet in any corner of the USA and you’ll see plenty of growth. But in order for it to grow in other parts of the world, it might have helped for people in Colombia and Chile to see their native son holding a bronze medal next to Rory McIlroy and Collin Morikawa and Hideki Matsiyama on Sunday. It’s too bad that isn’t what happened.

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