The move was expected, yet no less exceptional, when the IOC decided to postpone the Tokyo Olympics until next year.
It brought mixed reactions from so many Olympic athletes. Those from smaller sports might require another year of funding or sponsorship. Others were on the homestretch of a training cycle designed to peak at just the right time for a chance they get once every four years. The lucky ones who had early qualifying at least get to keep their places.
Kat Holmes, on her way to earning another shot at the Olympics in fencing, just got accepted into medical school and had plans to go straight from Tokyo to orientation. Now what?
As for golf?
That elicited a collective shrug.
Golf has a place in the Olympics, even if it took a century to get back in the game. But the reaction — or lack of one — to the unprecedented decision of postponing the Olympics was another reminder that a gold medal isn’t the standard as it is for other sports.
Inbee Park might beg to differ.
Her victory in Rio de Janeiro was one of the more underappreciated moments of the 2016 Games, perhaps because golf was so new and so much attention was spent on the number of men scared off by the Zika virus.
Five victories the previous year, including two majors, made Park a lock for one of the four coveted spots for South Korea. A thumb injury led to speculation she might retire. There was pressure from golf-mad South Korea for her to give up her place to another player in better form. Park went two months without facing top competition.
And then she throttled Lydia Ko, who had replaced Park at No. 1 in the world, for a five-shot victory.
Park was so desperate to return to the Olympics that she added tournaments to the early part of her schedule, before COVID-19 shut down everyone’s schedule. In that respect, the postponement bought her time. How much time depends on when golf resumes, which is anyone’s guess.
Then again, it’s not like the delay is causing golfers any problems with finances, training or even age.
It doesn’t have the qualifying pressure found in other sports. There are no Olympic trials for golf. It’s not up to individual countries to decide who goes.
Qualifying is based on the world ranking, the same system used by the majors for the last 20 years.
Sure, it could come down to one round or one shot, but that would be decided by a calculator, not a stopwatch. Matt Kuchar made a 12-foot birdie on his final hole at Firestone in 2016 for a 66. That was enough to move him to No. 15 in the world, sending him to Rio as the fourth American when Jordan Spieth withdrew. Kuchar came home with the bronze.
The cutoff for the world ranking this year would have been June 22 for the men, June 29 for the women. That’s roughly five weeks before the Olympic competition. For 2021, it’s likely to be the same.
Much like the Ryder Cup, no one really pays close attention to the final qualifying spots until a few months to go because of the effect of so many big events.
Justin Thomas is keen to be in Tokyo no matter when the Olympics are held, and he said going into this year he might even consider adding tournaments to his schedule to make sure he’s among the top four Americans (countries are allowed a maximum of four if the players are among the top 15 in the world).
He was fishing last week when the IOC announced the postponement until 2021. Thomas was bummed but not surprised. And he concluded a text message by saying, “Whenever it’s played, it’ll be great and I hope I’m part of the team.”
This year, next year, whenever.
Golf had a 112-year absence from the Olympics, and even with so many men staying away, it held its own in Rio.
With so many venues half-filled, men’s golf was a rare sellout for the final round when Justin Rose outlasted Henrik Stenson to win the gold. It was a big moment for Rose, and he gained an even greater appreciation from the reception when he took the medal home to England. The TV ratings in Sweden were eight times higher than when Stenson won the British Open at Royal Troon a month earlier.
The six medals in men’s and women’s golf went to six countries, a testament to such a global sport.
Thomas wants badly to be an Olympian, but postponement is not a big deal, even if what caused it — the spread of the coronavirus — is.
It’s not as though Thomas has been training four years for this. He was gearing up for the Masters, PGA Championship, U.S. Open, British Open and Ryder Cup (whenever they’re played). Green jackets and silver claret jugs and leaps into Poppie’s Pond remain the pinnacle of golf for men and women.
That’s why it was easy for golf to shrug over the news of Olympic postponement.
It doesn’t mean no one cares.
Unlike with other sports, waiting another year for the Olympics is little more than an inconvenience for golf.