Antony Scanlon on how golf joined the Olympics and the legacy it will leave

Golf News

The man in charge of golf in the Olympics talks to us about growing the game and leaving a legacy

Antony Scanlon is probably not someone you would recognise. He is also not the sort of person you would want to run into in a dark alley. He is an enormous bear of a man with a presence you feel a soon as he enters a room. He is someone you would want to go for a beer with; an Australian sporting fanatic in the best tradition, he is a fan as much as he is a statesman-like negotiator.

Most importantly, he is someone that you may well be thanking in the years to come for his affable manner, clear thinking and withering ability to cut through the nonsense that has been spoken about Olympic Golf. This blend of skills has seen him flourish in his role as executive director of the International Golf Federation, a body that has brought together anyone who is anyone in world golf to bring about golf’s inclusion at sport’s top table in Rio 2016 and hopefully beyond.

We met with him at the HSBC Golf Business Forum in Shanghai.

NANJING, CHINA - AUGUST 22: IGF Executive Director Antony Scanlon speaks at a meeting during IGF Sport Initiation Programme Activities at Nanjing Xuanwu Secondary Vocational School on August 22, 2014 in Nanjing, China. (Photo by CFP/Getty Images for IGF)

How rigorous was the process to get golf into the Olympics?

In 2009 it was a process where seven sports made an application to the IOC and they narrowed it down to two. Rugby and golf then presented to 115 IOC members, there was a limit on the number of sports which was 28 and there was a whole end programme based on the departure of baseball and softball.

Now the whole model has changed and it is more events as opposed to sports that are reviewed. Tokyo in 2020 had the opportunity to come back to the IOC to say which events they would like to participate. Rugby and golf are committed for 2020, five sports are nominated and the IOC can nominate events so I think five sports/17 events have been suggested by Japan. So it is a totally different model.

The host country can suggest a sport just for that Games. We’ll be assessed after Rio and if we don’t deliver we could be taken off the programme.

Were amateurs considered?

It was in the early days. The early submissions were in 1993 and there was another after that when the thought process was to have amateurs involved but the IOC has moved on from that.

It started in 1984, that was the real first commercial games if you like.  I think it’s about having the best athletes of a sport that is universally accepted as being a great sport – as having the breadth and coverage around the world. Golf is one of those sports.

Right now golf has a membership from 146 countries and it’s growing. Everyone pretty much has a golf club. We have that universal reach. With that we have the values that mirror the Olympic values and we have the star power with players that have created that universal reach.

Golf is bringing benefits to the Games.

There has been an idea to get golf included for the last 15 years but it is true the PGA Tour have not played ball for scheduling reasons?

I think the movement had grown and so too had the relationship between all the golfing bodies.

I think they got together based upon the groundswell of pressure that was coming from the national federations and the amateur bodies who were saying the best grow-the-golf opportunity is for us to be part of the Olympics because it will bring credibility to our sport. With that comes government recognition, resources and things we just don’t have at the amateur level.

It felt right for golf to be a part of the programme, everyone got behind that and I think the timing was pretty good.

We had an IOC that was searching for sports that had similar values and the star power that we certainly have. We had an IOC president who was very supportive of our sport – Jacques Rogge – and without his support we would not be there. And obviously, of course, the backing of the key tours and the governing bodies of the sport.

So your organization has basically brought together a lot of those people around the same table?

We have. Our membership consists of not only the amateur bodies but also the professional tours and a number of the PGAs. Our board consists of the delivery partners.

Other sports that are part of the Olympic programme are envious of our structure because we actually have everybody inside for us to get behind it.

By having everybody as part of the IGF we are not renegotiating every four years about whether the top players will be there and if we would have a Major conflicting with the Olympic Games, so the structure is right.

Golf wouldn’t be a success if all those bodies weren’t already working together and working towards growing the game. It has sort of solidified that commitment to growing the sport. That’s one of the great attributes that you can put to the Olympic Games – it has been able to bring our sport together under one cause.

Do you see that becoming an administrative body outside of the Olympics?

There is no grand design or grand plans to be the grand governing body. It’s fulfilling its role right now.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - JULY 21: Construction continues at the golf course in the Barra da Tijuca neighborhood with nearly one year to go to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games on July 21, 2015 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

You mentioned there could be some amateurs who qualify. How do they get on the national team?

It’s based upon world rankings. So amateurs, if they qualify, they can compete at events that have world ranking points. Right now we have potential for one player on the ladies’ side to qualify. I won’t put pressure on her by mentioning her name.

The IGF rules are a maximum of two players per country except if they are in the top 15 in the world and there is a maximum of four per country.

The reason we do that is to have diversity in the field, so as many countries as we can. We only have 60 players – a Major field has 178 – so it is fairly small.

We have 35 countries but we also need strength of field. You want credibility in who your champion is and for it not to be a lottery.

And the format?

We never really had a choice because the IOC was insistent that the Olympic Games isn’t a place to experiment with format. It was clear from the players leading up to our bid that they wanted it to be individual events. The IOC was very clear that if there was to be a team component it had to be totally separate from the individual events. And then you had the driver being a limit on how many courses we could use in terms of resources.

It comes down to one golf course. Right now you are limited to individual women’s and men’s games. During the Youth Olympic Games, when we can experiment, we had a mixed format – mixed team events. And who knows maybe in Tokyo we can look at something like that. It might just depend on athlete interest and availability. It may mean another weekend and players unavailable to play.

A lot of people would like to see it played under a matchplay format…

For those who were proponents of matchplay, the problem is that after day one we would lose half the countries. It was a grow-the-game opportunity. People watch not for who wins but who participates. You watch your countrymen play in a sport you normally wouldn’t do because they are representing you. We are reaching out to the 70 per cent of the audience out there that we would not normally have. They might get more involved in golf.

How is the course shaping up?

The design is looking great. We had a really good winter season which was hot enough to get some additional growth. It’s in really good state. From what was a really degraded site, it’s a great story for the area because more and more wildlife is coming back, even crocodiles. There has been a tremendous amount of replanting of native trees etc. It’s bringing back the flora, it’s incredible. When I first went, there was nothing, except vultures. Now it’s incredible. We are going to have a great venue.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - FEBRUARY 02: Construction continues at the olympic golf course clubhouse in the Barra da Tijuca neighborhood with six months to go to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games on February 2, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Some people have said the course was a chance to do something different – perhaps create a stadium-type environment or shorter course, something different?

The course is not ours – not the IGF’s – it will be the only public 18-hole course in the whole resort. The brief was that for the Games it will be a test for the best players but ultimately for the remaining 50, 60, 70 years that you or I can go play there, the design culminates that. You’ll see a course which is enjoyable for all.

You have said before that there would be 2 to 3 billion extra people watching sport?

I think the London Olympics was around a 4.8 billion potential audience. You have got this great opportunity to showcase your sport you wouldn’t normally think about.

In Olympic sport there is an interest created locally in a country where there is a medalist or if there is a country with a greater interest in that sport, but also any country where there is a participant in the sport.

The national federations have to be ready for interest and not let this opportunity pass them by. At the same time, they also have to promote within their own markets the fact that golf is in the Olympics, which is still not very widely known. You still want the traditional golf audience to be watching but, at the same time, you want the new audiences to be attracted to it as well. It’s not a matter of sitting back and waiting for it to happen you have got to be prepared for that interest.

Where do you direct these people if they want to start the game, are you ready for introductory courses and is tennis’s growth the path to follow?

Their participant numbers have doubled from 2000 to 2013, from 60 million to 120 and that is the closest barometer to our sport. They have been able to build up the tuition and make sure there are facilities available. We also have to be open to our definition of what participants are.

One of the things that we would hope for is that British golf is liaising with the rights holder – the BBC – to be able to say that if there is interest in the sport please contact where. And where do they refer them?

What examples are there of governments only investing if it is an Olympic sport?

In China, golf is on the programme of the All-China Games.

There is funding and resources at university and school levels. At the Youth Olympic Games at Nanjing they had 10 golf schools and now they have 40.

Other examples; funding from national governments, such as in Argentina whereby their elite programme, all traveling costs etc, has come straight from the government.

In Brazil itself, the national federation received grants in excess of £200,000 a year from the National Olympic Committee to grow the sport through programmes in schools, which I think they introduced to 20,000 kids in Brazil.

From our membership base of 99 it has grown to 146 national federations because of the opportunities of the legitimacy of the sport within the governments and the funding that comes from that.

You seem to be saying that the conclusion will do wonders for golf?

It has already started. You talk to tennis, it was a 28-year journey for them. Hopefully, ours won’t be as great. Time will tell. These things are individual.

What does Olympic golf look like in 2030?

There will be mixed events, mixed team events and the medalists would be varied.

There would be wider dispersement of the medals across the countries and we will have just as broad a representation of nationalities but a higher range of players, which will show the growth of the game.

There will still be individual games in some format.

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