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Golf in Olympics still a source of contention

They gave away gold medals for synchronized diving, beach volleyball, fencing and badminton at the Olympics in Athens. The world's best basketball players were there (minus several American defections), along with stars in softball and tennis.

There were 28 sports involved, but no golf.

It's been a century since golf was an official sport in the Olympics, with George Lyon of Canada claiming the last gold medal in 1904. Greg Norman thinks that's way too long because of the sport's wide-range appeal.

"Golf is one of the most global games out there, among the top five in the world," Norman said. "So why not include it?"

Here's one of the biggest reasons: Golf, to many observers, already has enough international golf. You've got the Ryder Cup (U.S. vs. Europe every even-numbered year) and the Presidents Cup (U.S. vs. the rest of the world except Europe every odd-numbered year). There's also the four majors and four World Gold Championship events, not to mention The Players Championship. On the LPGA Tour, there's the Solheim Cup (U.S. vs. Europe) every odd-numbered year.

International enough already?

One could argue, with Americans winning only five of the past 15 PGA Tour-sponsored tournaments, that every week on Tour has turned into an international event. The LPGA Tour has even more of an international flavor because there's no other tour in the world that rivals its appeal.

But USGA Executive Director David Fay, who's leading the effort to return golf to the Olympics, points out that there is one major difference. "The Olympics would be the only international event where golfers are competing for themselves, not their team," he said Tuesday. "After all, golf is an individual sport."

Another factor hurting the Olympic golf movement involves superstar power. Namely, will Tiger Woods play? If he does, more people will watch; if he doesn't, it's not must-see TV.

Woods has always been lukewarm on the subject. "It would be great to have an Olympic gold medal," Woods recently said, "but if you asked any player, 'Would you rather have an Olympic gold medal or green jacket or Claret Jug (given to British Open champion)?' more players would say the majors."

In other words, thanks, but, no thanks, Woods is saying. As one person in his camp said about Woods' thoughts on the Olympics, "It's just another week where he plays and doesn't get paid for it."

And that's not going to be good for the Olympics sponsors or networks. "Who wants to run the 100-meter dash, and not have the world's fastest runner show up?" said Jupiter's Olin Browne, a member of the PGA Tour's Policy Board. "What's the point?"

The PGA Tour has not endorsed the Olympics wholeheartedly for financial reasons: It's in business to put on as many tournaments as it can for its card-carrying members to make a living. Shutting down the PGA Tour for a couple of weeks during the summer — or asking sponsors to put up millions of dollars for a tournament without any of the world's top players — is not in its interest.

A way to 'grow the game'

The earliest golf could be added to the Olympics is in 2012, in either New York, London, Paris, Madrid or Moscow. Fay said any hopes of making it to the Beijing Games in 2008 apparently have ended because there are too many hurdles to overcome before then.

Fay, who also is co-secretary of the International Golf Foundation, believes it's in everyone's interest to get the sport under the Olympics rings, even though he said the inclusion would not be a big deal in the United States

"You have to think globally on this one," he said. "Golf in the Olympics could grow the game worldwide, particularly in places where it's not that big. Take countries like Croatia or Russia. In order to jump-start interest and support of the sport in these countries, you need money. The best way to get that is through two sources —- your government or the national Olympic committee, For these countries, there's no substitute for it being an Olympic medal sport."

Fay has pointed to the bounce gymnastics in America received when Mary Lou Retton won the gold medal in 1984 as reasons to support golf in the Olympics. He believes the addition of the sport in the Olympics would greatly help to grow the number of participants in the game because it would help fund facilities, proper instruction and equipment.

Clearly, there's more support for golf becoming an Olympic sport among non-American athletes. Northern Ireland's Padraig Harrington, the world's eighth-ranked player, said he would relish an opportunity to play for an Olympic medal as much as winning his first major championship. He pointed out only six Irish athletes have won Olympic gold medals since the country became an independent nation.

"Some golfers say we now have four majors and that is enough," Harrington said. "But the four majors were not the four majors 70 years ago. You never know, in 50 years maybe the Olympics will be the No. 1 major. It has to start somewhere. I would put in on my schedule now."

South Africa's Ernie Els and Nick Faldo of England also support golf in the Olympics, but they believe it should be limited to the game's top amateurs. Fay says the International Olympic Committee has made it clear they don't want golf unless the world's best players would compete.

Fay knows most top players like Woods aren't enamored with the idea. But he points out several benefits to the sport: "It's not like you have to build a new stadium to have it," he said. "And golf scoring is objective. You aren't going to be left to the whims of some judges.

Still, Fay knows fans around the world aren't clamoring for golf in the Olympics. Nor may be the networks. "Golf isn't going to be as compelling as the marquee events such as track and field or swimming," he said.

But he says if the sport doesn't unite in this effort, it's wasted a golden opportunity.

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