The best measure of how much golf is growing around the world can be found in Turkey, of all places.
And not just because that’s where the stars have come to play.
Never mind that Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy are among eight elite players in an exhibition called the “World Golf Finals” that began Tuesday. It’s mostly for show (four players wore shorts during the opening round of medal matches) and plenty of dough ($1.5 million for the winner).
No doubt, this can only help Turkey’s bid to land the Olympics in 2020 and present itself as a golfing destination. And having the biggest names in golf, even for a few days, might inspire more interest in the game.
Far more significant, however, was the tournament that left town with little fanfare.
The World Amateur Team Championship wrapped up Sunday, with the United States winning for the first time since 2004. What made this significant was not who posed with the Eisenhower Trophy, rather who didn’t get to play. For the first time in the tournament’s 54-year history, there was an alternate list.
Television executive Neal Pilson once said the financial health of the PGA Tour was best measured by the waiting list of potential sponsors, and the same can be said of the World Team Amateur. It began in 1958 with 29 teams at St. Andrews. This year, there was a full field of 72 teams – from the U.S. to Ukraine, from Bermuda to Bulgaria – on the Sultan and Faldo courses at Antalya.
Among those on the waiting list, which was determined by when they signed up, were Saudi Arabia, Mauritius, Namibia and Lebanon.
“We had our biennial meeting of all member organizations and the accent and emphasis on the Olympics was very evident,” said Peter Dawson, chief executive of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club who serves as president of the International Golf Federation. “The interest is there. It’s amazing that in these countries they think of Olympic sports, instead of golf as its own sport. It’s certainly starting to serve to grow the game.”
It’s too convenient to attribute the growth of the World Amateur Team to golf being approved as an Olympic sport for 2016. Golf was approved for the Olympics only three years ago, not nearly enough time for some countries to develop a reasonable infrastructure – golf courses, practice facilities, instruction, corporate involvement and, perhaps most important, a strong middle class.
The numbers have been trending in this direction for the last decade – 63 teams in 2002 at Malaysia, 70 teams in 2006 in South Africa. And it helps that Turkey is centrally located for some African and Asian nations.
But it illustrates how far golf has come – and how much more room there is to grow.
“I thought this was a good, inevitable outcome,” said David Fay, the former USGA executive director who spent 30 years working the World Amateur Team. “It confirms the game is going global, in large part because golf is an Olympic sport. There are more countries playing now, and they look at Olympic sports differently than they look at other sports. There’s so much evidence. When tennis became a medal sport (in 1988), that’s when they invested more money in tennis, and you saw what the outcome was – all the champions produced by the former Soviet Union.”
The first time Fay worked the World Amateur Team was in 1980 at Pinehurst, where he saw a 17-year-old Fijian named Vijay Singh “who couldn’t break 90.” Singh now is in the World Golf Hall of Fame.
One of the early concerns was that emerging golf nations might get embarrassed competing against more polished players, and there’s still plenty of evidence. Just last week, Azamat Maksytbekov of Kyrgyzstan made only one par in 54 holes. He had rounds of 128-125-125 to finish 163-over par. Only the top two scores from the three-man teams count, so he was bailed out by his teammates – Konstantin Surikov was 95 over and Alexey Konev was 117 over.
Macedonia fielded a team for the first time, and 17-year-old Peter Stojanovski opened with a 71 – the same score (on a different course) as U.S. Amateur champion Steven Fox. Stojanovski followed with two rounds in the 80s. Macedonia wound up in 63rd place.
“The original objective when the Eisenhower Trophy began was friendship through sport, and that thread has stayed,” Dawson said. “Teams tend not to stay at the bottom forever. Nobody feels embarrassed. Everyone is very tolerant of the newcomers.”