Two years is a very long time in golf – much can change. Take Rory McIlroy’s stance on golf’s return to The Olympics, for example. In 2016, the Ulsterman was rather scathing of its reappearance. Now, the four-time Major winner is relishing the opportunity to become an Olympian – as is a certain Tiger Woods.
Woods also finds himself in a very different place. Sidelined through injury during the Rio Games in 2016, he has since landed an incredible fifteenth Major.
Now, one of sport’s greatest ever stars has described Tokyo as a ‘big goal’, which is a very big deal for the Olympic movement, as well as the sport itself.
RSNG caught up with the BBC’s golf correspondent, Iain Carter, to ask what Woods’ Olympic pledge means for golf, his rivals, and for the man himself...
Woods Still The Big Draw
Woods may not be the force he once was, but he’s far from finished – as his Masters win in April proved – and for as long as he’s playing he’ll remain the biggest draw.
‘Woods is someone who transcends golf; he’s still one of the biggest figures in all of sport,’ says Carter, who’s followed much of the American’s career during commentary on more than 50 Major Championships.
‘His legend was enhanced further with his victory at The Masters. If you look at the timeline of golf’s return to The Olympics and the process that went through, it was basically a legacy of Woods’ rise to the very top of the sporting world.’
‘The International Olympic Committee, through Woods, was able to see what value golf could generate for their movement, so I think it was very good for golf but I also think it was very good for The Olympics to have golf in there, and to have Tiger Woods as a vanguard in that process.’
‘Woods is someone who transcends golf – he’s still one of the biggest figures in all of sport’
The World’s Best Are Taking Note
Woods might still have a battle to satisfy the entry requirements to qualify for Tokyo, but his Olympic ambitions have been noted, and Carter is expecting two strong fields in the men’s and women’s tournaments.
‘I think you’ll see very, very few of the world’s top players ignoring The Olympics this time. Everything I’ve heard suggests that all of the top men’s and women’s players will be there and I think having seen the impact of the golf in Rio, and the success of those tournaments, they don’t want to miss out on it.’
Nor will Woods, who will be doing everything he can to qualify and reinforce his legacy. ‘He’s achieved everything that is possible to do in the game of golf apart from win an Olympic medal,’ adds Carter.
‘Jack Nicklaus’ Majors record is part of the on-going narrative, but in terms of titles to win, he’s won absolutely every single one of them apart from The Olympics, so it makes perfect sense for him to want to be there.’
Have The Doubters Been Silenced?
It’s a far cry from a few years ago when players were far more sceptic about golf’s inclusion in the ‘Greatest Show On Earth’. ‘Players were concerned about the Zika virus, but I think they also needed to be convinced that it was a valuable addition to the golfing calendar,’ says Carter.
‘I think when people saw the reaction, the fact these were golf events that actually transcended the sport and had an impact beyond the traditional heartlands of golf support, they were able to see this was actually something that was good for the game and good for them as well.’
‘Players were concerned about Zika virus in Rio but they also had to be convinced The Olympics was a valuable addition to golf’
Credit for Rose and Inbee Park
Should Woods find himself donning the Stars and Stripes for the US, one man he’ll be sure to face is reining gold medallist, Justin Rose, and Carter is full of praise for the Englishman for the part he played in championing Olympic golf.
‘The response that Justin and Inbee Park generated with their wins in Rio brought about a very strong realisation of the value of The Olympics to golf. So, the momentum has already been built, it’s already there,’ he says.
‘Since his win, Justin has been one of the most visible golfers out there. He hasn’t won a Major since winning The Olympics, but he’s one of the most marketable figures in the game. His gold medal certainly massively helped him in that regard.’
‘The fact he’s such an articulate ambassador for the game really helped too. The Olympic movement had a lot to celebrate as it was such a vocal supporter of golf’s return to the Games who actually came through to win the men’s gold medal.’
Want to read more RSNG golf content? Check out our exclusive interview with three-time Major winner, Jordan Spieth – a self-confessed “nerd” of the game.