Liam Morgan

Before the world’s top players graced the glorious Augusta National and before a ball had been struck in earnest at the opening major of the year, attention and focus appeared to be elsewhere.

The Masters is perhaps the most renowned golf competition on the planet, with a rich tapestry of history stretching back to the first-ever edition in 1934, yet it was the new kid on the block which dominated the build-up to one of the sport’s four showpiece events.

That was down to Augusta National Golf Club chairman Billy Payne. The 68-year-old, a proud Georgian, is a figure synonymous with the Olympics, having led the Organising Committee for the Atlanta Games in 1996. He used his pre-Masters press conference to reveal the winner of the Rio 2016 gold medal, for both men and women, would be given passes to the majors.

Not only did he announce the news that the respective victors at this summer’s grandiose spectacle would be handed exemptions, but he also used the conference as a platform to reiterate a view he has held for so long. The Olympics and golf are a perfect fit.

“We believe our game's visibility will be dramatically elevated by the global platform that only the Olympics offer," Payne said.

"New audiences from all over the world, some for the very first time ever, will be exposed to our great sport and come to know and appreciate the amazing athletes and heroes in golf.

“From this greater visibility, we believe will evolve greater participation in our game, and it will be a certain beneficiary.”

But does golf, a sport where tournaments are held from Augusta to Auckland, really need further exposure? It is one of the core questions and the answer provides the first of many reasons why golf and the Olympics aren’t as suited as Payne might suggest.

Augusta National Golf Club chairman Billy Payne believes golf's return to the Olympic programme will be a success
Augusta National Golf Club chairman Billy Payne believes golf's return to the Olympic programme will be a success ©Getty Images

For a start, give a player the choice between the famous green jacket - draped around the eventual victor at The Masters and earned following four gruelling rounds of golf on one of the toughest courses in the world - and an Olympic gold and there is only one winner.

That may appear an obvious point to many but a pertinent view is that the Olympics should be the pinnacle, the epitome, for every sport on the programme. We know that not to be true - just ask tennis players, for example - but the opinion exists regardless.

World number two Jordan Spieth of the United States might claim the tournament in Rio 2016 will be “like a fifth major”, but there’s no doubt he would value a triumph at the Masters, the USPGA, the Open or the US Open more than being crowned Olympic champion. There’s far more prestige and status in a major triumph.

With that in mind, it’s difficult to see how the Rio 2016 golf competition will be able to encapsulate and harness the same drama, tension and theatre seen over countless past editions of the majors.

It’s difficult to see how the players themselves can create the same atmosphere and aura when perhaps their hearts just aren’t quite as in it. 

The truth is, golf does not need the Olympics. The majors are watched by millions, if not billions, worldwide and the game attracts levels of sponsorship and television revenue - particularly in the United States - which others can only dream of, and it is already established among the globe’s premier sports.

Adam Scott of Australia has been one of the leading critics of golfs Olympic return
Adam Scott of Australia has been one of the leading critics of golfs Olympic return ©Getty Images

Adding another event to an already congested calendar is also another obvious issue, so blatantly highlighted by outspoken Australian Adam Scott, one of the staunchest objectors to golf’s Olympic inclusion, who claimed he might skip Rio 2016 in favour of time off. It is easy to see why some aren’t exactly full of excitement.

Of course, the cynics might say that the physical strain placed on the body of a golfer is incomparable to that of a marathon runner or an artistic gymnast, and they would be right. But that is beside the point – as well as the copious travelling, the mental fatigue the game of golf places on the brain is far stronger than you might imagine.

Golf has also endured an unwelcome comparison with rugby sevens, the other new addition to the Rio 2016 programme, as enthusiasm and fervour for the shorter format’s Olympic debut has been prominent ever since the two were selected at the International Olympic Committee Session in Copenhagen way back in 2009. The build-up for the respective sports has been at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Concerns about golf’s viability as an Olympic sport have been raised by some of the game’s household stars - including Scott, while world number three Rory McIlroy was hardly unanimous in his support - yet their rugby sevens equivalents are throwing their considerable weight behind their own sport’s effort.

Athletes who have reached the highest echelon in rugby union’s XV version, such as Rugby World Cup winners Sonny Bill Williams and Liam Messam, are dying for the chance to pull on their national colours and step out onto the Olympic stage. For them, nothing else matters.

Rugby World Cup winner Sonny Bill Williams is a household name who has switched to the sevens format of the game
Rugby World Cup winner Sonny Bill Williams is a household name who has switched to the sevens format of the game ©Getty Images

American Nate Ebner is another notable case. The 27-year-old has lived a dream by lifting the Super Bowl trophy with the New England Patriots in 2014 - success in sport on that side of the pond doesn’t get much bigger - and has now turned his attention to earning a place on the United States Olympic team for the rugby sevens tournament at Rio 2016.

The trio have climbed to the highest mountain in their sport but that still hasn't been enough - they want the experience only an Olympics can offer.

Yes, it could be argued that, had all three not managed to master their craft and achieved what they had achieved in their respective sports, the Olympics may not be on their agenda. But the fact that they have all been so outspoken, so willing to be a part of rugby sevens’ historic appearance at the Games can only be seen as a positive.

On the other hand, the Games have the ability to open the eyes of the host nation to new sports and disciplines and organisers will be hoping that will be the case with golf – there are currently no South Americans in the top 100 in the men’s or women’s game – and it’s fair to say the Olympics invoke an unrivalled sense of nationalism, with the whole country rallying behind those entrusted to represent them.

Payne is of the belief this will be the case in Brazil. “The Olympics is the world's largest platform to showcase sports, the largest and the best,” he said.

“When you start giving out awards which have the effect of creating immense national pride, I think we will see almost immediately with golf's inclusion in the Olympics that multiple countries will start using resources and capital into the development of their own golf programs, because these countries want to win medals.”

Olympic medals are also a universal language; every country understands what it means to finish on the podium at the Games, and the nation often unities in support of their team, basking in their every glory.

Having the honour of earning an Olympic medal is not an individual triumph - it is often a whole country’s success. A winner of a golf major, on the other hand, is solely down to that person (and his or her caddie) and with several nations usually dominating, the whole country rarely backs one horse.

Rory McIlroy is another of the game's leading names to have appeared nonplussed about golf being on the programme at Rio 2016
Rory McIlroy is another of the game's leading names to have appeared nonplussed about golf being on the programme at Rio 2016 ©Getty Images

With gold at Rio 2016 comes a guaranteed place at the majors for the men and women, and while this gives an outsider the chance of making history and securing their future participation at the top-level tournaments, it offers another glimpse as to the lesser value of golf at the Olympics.

If the Olympic competition is so important and so special, why establish it as below the others by using it as a passageway to the majors? The gold medal in the Brazilian city has been linked with the more notable prizes in the sport - the green jacket being a perfect example - immediately demeaning it as barely more than a feeder event.

“I think what you feel now, and what you hear now, as some of these individuals themselves become part of the Olympics, probably change their mind,” Payne added.

It’s hard to think the minds of the golfers will be anywhere other than wishing to be back on the glorious greens of Augusta at Rio 2016, even with an Olympic gold medal at stake.