Olympics 2016: Jamie Spence on GB’s hunger for the GamesFebruary, 2016
Mark Townsend speaks to GB's team leader about how he hopes to bring back some medals
Since we’ve had to wait 112 years for this to happen we might as well understand how it is all going to work come August.
On Monday July 11, the day after the Scottish Open and so before that week’s Open Championship, the golfing line-up for the Olympics will be finalised.
Here’s how it works; players in the top 15 of the world rankings automatically make it except there is a limit of four per country. So, as things stand, Jim Furyk (9), Patrick Reed (10) and Zach Johnson (13) would miss out.
For players outside the top 15 there is a limit of two per country. And the host nation Brazil are guaranteed the 60th spot in both the men’s and women’s event.
And there is also good news for the likes of Vijay Singh, 253 in the world, and Bangladesh’s Siddikur Rahman (304) but the likes of Paul Casey (22) and Russell Knox (30) will need to overhaul Danny Willett (19) or rocket into the top 15. For Ireland, Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry look assured of a place on the plane to Rio.
The format will be 72 holes of strokeplay, much like every other week on the calendar, and will get under way on day six of the Games with the men playing the week before the women on August 11. The competition even gets going on the Thursday, much like every other week.
And then the athlete with the lowest aggregate score wins. In the event of a tie for first, second or third place, a play-off or multiple play-offs shall be conducted for the purpose of determining the gold, silver and bronze medal winners.
Jamie Spence was appointed as golf team leader for Team GB two years ago and we spoke to the two-time European Tour winner about his plans to try to bring home a medal or two.
[The format] guarantees four rounds of golf and they wanted to attract big names. Personally I would like a matchplay after a two-round cut with 16 players"
What was the interview process for the job like?
Apparently 43 people applied for the role, which is a voluntary position, and it was the first interview I’ve ever had. It was all quite nerve-wracking, I had to do a presentation but I quite enjoyed it.
At the start I was just over 50 per cent wanting to do it but it felt too good not to do it. There are something like 27 sports in the Olympics and every sport has a team leader. In other sports they are mostly responsible for that sport in some way. I’m not. I won’t select the team.
What has surprised you about the role?
That it’s not a one-man job! I’ve had some great help in developing the clothing range from Tania Revitt who has done the Ryder Cup for years and is a good friend. You have to order everything so far in advance and Tania’s a very good golfer and came up with most of the ideas. What do I know about women’s clothing?!
Then there are things like the accreditation which is still not complete. Again everything is done so far in advance compared to events like the Ryder or Solheim cups. The BOA and IOC request all the details for every potential athlete or coach or administrator well, and that includes caddies, so that is something like 60 names and all takes time.
Accreditations are like gold dust. There will be range passes for the day but it won’t be possible to accredit everyone.
Ian Baker-Finch is the Australian team leader and Gary Player South Africa’s and I think everyone has been a bit surprised by the amount of paperwork involved.
Who else is involved in the backroom team?
I also have Mike Hay helping me, he was a curler and has worked on so many Olympics. And Nigel Tilley, a physio from the European Tour, was very keen to go and he can look after all the players and help with the anti-doping process. All players are very aware of what’s required and it’s nice to have him to tick some boxes on that.
On tour they get tested regularly these days and they know what they can and can’t take when they’re ill but it’s going to be different with the whereabouts programme in the last three months and they could be tested at any time.
What are your thoughts on the much-criticised format?
It guarantees four rounds of golf and they wanted to attract the big names. Personally I would like a matchplay after a tworound cut with 16 players. Then the third and fourth place match means something.
Most weeks there is a cut so the players are used to that and, with 16 from 60, that would be about right. Hopefully it is a success and we don’t get a runaway winner but you could also have a 7&6 winner in matchplay. For a new audience matchplay might be easier to relate to; he/she scores four, he/ she shoots five and on we go.
What about the qualifying criteria with players presently not in the world’s top 10 not being eligible?
It is the same for other sports. Only a few qualify in athletics or boxing so why should golf be different? In golf we expect the top 50 to play in all the Majors, in other sports that doesn’t happen.
At the moment we have two girls and two boys. There is a chance that a man could get into the top 15, you never know. Somebody like Ian Poulter could win the Masters.
As things stand we have got four players – Justin Rose, Danny Willett, Charley Hull and Catriona Matthew – who are great at promoting the game and they have all got a chance of standing on the rostrum. From our initial chats the girls said they would get there a bit later, Justin will be there a bit earlier. Another player’s caddy said they might go before to have a look.
A few people have been quite cynical. One British player wasn’t keen to come but I’m sure I could persuade him if it happened. People don’t like change, but all the girls have really embraced it.
Is there a case for Tiger to get a special invite?
I’m sure he would be keen but he’s not even playing now. Ernie Els would love to be there but, as well as hoping to attract the top players, they also want as many nations as possible. I suppose you have to draw a line somewhere.
Another concern has been the course, which you have visited. What did you make of it?
I really like it, it is difficult to form a concrete opinion when you’ve not got your clubs in your hand but I walked every hole with the superintendent Neil Cleverley, who has been there for three years, and I really rated it.
There is no rough, it is either fairway or scrub. The bunkers are well placed and well shaped, the greens sit well into the land and it’s different. They are well in advance in terms of conditioning and they’ve got a good covering of grass so I was very pleasantly surprised.
Also there are no teeing areas so they can put them where they like. They could cut a strip out the fairway or from areas in the dunes so they can change the hole, which is old fashioned, but I like it. It might be more of a challenge to get the spectators around but I’m not worried about the course.
Any idea how hard/easy the course will be? Neil said it it blows every day and will be a two-club wind, without that they would take it to pieces, a bit like a Kingsbarns. That is the impression I had.
Will all the golfers be staying in the Olympic Village?
Justin (Rose) won’t be as he is keen to bring his family and friends, his wife was a gymnast. He is keen to go in and experience it but he wants his family with him. He has been great from day one, he’s desperately keen to play in it and will rent a property nearby.
We saw a showhouse but it won’t be like that, I’m told it will be quite basic. But that will be fine and Team GB is in one big apartment block which will be fantastic and very inspiring. Onsite everyone will wear the Team GB kit, the BOA have done very well with the brand.
How will you help the players to keep their focus, given everything that will be going on around them?
Do what you normally do. The reason I’m involved is because we’ve got some talented players and I think we can win some medals. I’m not interested in going to Brazil and having a good time and saying ’wasn’t Brazil great’. I want to do well and be successful.
I can’t see Catriona being sidelined or star-struck. You want them to embrace it but remember what you are there for. It will be a different environment. From a logistics point of view the course is near the Olympic Village so hopefully that should all be straightforward.
Will the Olympics help get golf away from its fuddy-duddy images?
The players should be playing in shorts. It’s an athletic sport so what’s the problem? The players are so professional the way they work and the distances they hit it is incredible. Going to the gym in Olympic Village is going to be incredible and so educational.
How about it becoming the fifth Major?
You’ve got to give it time, the original Majors were two Amateurs and Opens and it was only an American journalist that helped change that. The PGA was a matchplay until 1958 so why not?
I’m not a fan of having three Majors in the States, not a fan at all. Golf is so American-centric, golf is played all over the world and the next Olympics will be in Tokyo. People need to step outside the golfing box.
Women now have a fifth Major and the world is still turning.