Bubba Watson, Patrick Reed, Matt Kuchar to Represent U.S.
When golf makes its return to the Olympics this month, the four-man U.S. team will consist of three players with Georgia ties, two of whom made the squad thanks to the lengthy list of world class players who elected to skip the Games in Rio de Janeiro.
The players not competing in Rio have largely overshadowed those who are competing, with the roster of no-shows including the top four players in World Rankings (Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy), as well as a host of other prominent names (Adam Scott, Branden Grace, Louis Ooshuizen, Hideki Matsuyama, Charl Schwartzel, Shane Lowry, K.T. Kim, Marc Leishman, Francisco Molinari, Graeme McDowell, Victor Dubuisson and Vijay Singh.
The danger of the Zika virus was the main reason cited by the absent players, although the crowded Summer schedule necessitated by the addition of golf to the Olympics was also a major factor. The Olympics will be played two weeks after the PGA Championship, which was two weeks after the British Open. The FedExCup Playoffs begin two weeks after Olympic golf ends.
Five of the game’s top 10 players will be among the 60-player field, including Americans Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler, two of this year’s major champions (Henrik Stenson and Danny Willett) and Sergio Garcia.
Among the 60 players are 18 PGA Tour members and a handful of Web.com players, including Ireland’s Seamus Power, a Web.com member who was the beneficiary of some of the more prominent absences.
A total of 34 countries will be represented, with the four-man U.S. team the only one with more than two players. Ten of the countries will have just one player, among them host Brazil (Addison da Silva), Venezuela (Jhonattan Vegas), and some players not exactly major names outside their home countries. Miguel Tabuena, Felipe Aguilar, Espen Kofstad and Siddikur Rahman all qualified, with Mexico’s Rodolfo Cazaubon, ranked 344 at the time teams were determined, the last individual to get in.
Players will compete over 72 holes in a stroke play format, the same as professional tournaments all over the world. There is no team competition, with the three medals going to the top three individuals. In addition to the five top-10 players in the field, other highly-ranked non-American players include Justin Rose, Rafa Cabrera-Bello, Byeong Hun An, Thongchai Jaidee, Danny Lee, Emiliano Grillo, David Lingmerth, Soren Kjeldsen, Bernd Wiesberger, Martin Kaymer, Kiradech Aphibarnrat, Anirban Lahiri, Thorbjorn Olesen and Joost Luiten.
Joining Watson and Fowler on the U.S. team are Patrick Reed and Matt Kuchar, with Fowler the only one of the four who did not play his college golf in Georgia.
Watson essentially played just one year at the U. of Georgia, enjoying a successful junior season after transferring from an Alabama junior college. But after earning honorable mention All-America honors in 2000, Watson spent the entire 2001 season on the bench, making just one appearance as an individual in an event in Statesboro he won the year before.
By 2003, Watson was a member of what is now the Web.com Tour, and played on it for three years, earning the last spot for the PGA Tour in 2005 by placing 21st on the money list.
The 37-year-old Watson, a northwest Florida native, is in his 11th season on the PGA Tour and has nine career victories, all coming since 2010, including the 2012 and ’14 Masters. He has at least one victory in six of the last seven seasons, including two wins each is 2011, ’14 and ’15. He also has 14 career runner-up finishes, three apiece in both 2014 and ’15, finishing fifth in the final FedExCup standings both years.
So far this season, Watson has a win in Los Angeles and a second place finish in the WGC event at Doral. He has represented the U.S. in the last three Ryder Cups and two of the last three Presidents Cups, and will almost certainly be a member of this year’s U.S. squad. At the time the Olympic teams were finalized, Watson was the top-ranked player in the Games at No. 5, but has since dropped to sixth, just behind Stenson, who moved up after his British Open win.
Fowler is next in the rankings at No. 7, with Reed 13 and Kuchar 15 at the deadline. Reed and Kuchar made the team when Johnson and Spieth passed on Olympic participation, and Kuchar has since dropped out of the top 15, the cutoff for players whose countries already had two qualifiers. Had the deadline been extended to include the British Open, Phil Mickelson would have replaced Kuchar on the American team.
Reed played part of one season at Georgia as a freshman before transferring to Augusta State, where he led the Jaguars to back-to-back NCAA Championships in 2010 and ’11. He turned pro immediately after his junior season and after a successful year of Monday qualifying on the PGA Tour in 2012, became a Tour member in 2013.
The 26-year-old Reed, a native of San Antonio, has won four times in his four seasons on the PGA Tour, two of them coming in 2014. He has yet to win this season, but has a pair of runner-up finishes, one of them in his hometown. He was a member of the 2014 Ryder Cup and 2015 Presidents Cup teams, and is a strong contender to make the Ryder Cup this year.
Kuchar also attended college in the state, starring for Georgia Tech from 1997-2000. The Yellow Jackets finished third and second in the NCAA Championship during his four years on the team, and he twice earned first team All-American status. During his years at Georgia Tech, Kuchar won the 1997 U.S Amateur and finished 21st and 14th as an amateur the next year in the Masters and U.S. Open.
In his first season as a pro in 2001, Kuchar played his way onto the PGA Tour with four top-10 finishes in 11 starts. He won a tournament during his first full season the next year, but lost his exempt status after 2005 and spent most of the ‘06 season on what is now the Web.com Tour, placing 10th on the money list to return to the PGA Tour the next year.
Since 2009, Kuchar has been one of the most consistently successful PGA Tour players, winning six times with 16 other top-3 finishes. He is enjoying another successful season this year with a trio of third-place showings.
The 37-year-old Kuchar was a member of the 1999 U.S. Walker Cup team and has made the last six Ryder Cup/Presidents Cup teams since 2010. He is a strong contender to make the 2016 Ryder Cup team.
Kuchar, a native Floridian, is the lone Georgia resident among the three Olympians who played collegiately in the state, residing on St. Simons Island after previously living in Atlanta.
This will be the first time golf has been part of the Olympics since 1904, the first Olympics of the modern era. The sport was in line to return to the schedule in 1996 in Atlanta, but was scrapped several years before its expected return. Olympic golf was done in by the combined efforts of Atlanta politicians and International Olympic Committee members from outside the U.S. who were unhappy that Atlanta won the host city competition. They teamed up to kill golf’s addition after a media event announcing golf in the ’96 Olympics was held at Augusta National, which was to be the site for the tournament.
Men’s golf had no particular need for being a part of the Olympics. But the same politicians who thought they were striking a blow for racial justice by denying Augusta National the privilege of hosting an Olympic event never considered the tremendous opportunity they denied the top female golfers to compete at the famed course.
Golf’s very public Olympic snub has since become a forgotten event from the not-so-distant path, and was evidently no consideration when representatives from the sport’s most prominent organizations applied for inclusion in the 2016 and 2020 schedules.
There were various problems with the construction of a course in a country where golf is a minor sport, and the decision by many of the game’s top players not to compete in Rio has Olympic officials reconsidering golf’s status after the 2020 Olympics in Japan, where golf will be a big deal.
Tennis, the sport most similar to golf in terms of structure and international appeal, has gotten little from its involvement in the Olympics over the past few decades, and has devalued the Olympics to the extent that world ranking points will not be offered at this month’s Games.
Attempting to cram Olympic golf into an already crowded Summer schedule caused problems for both the PGA and European Tours, and put the qualifying players in difficult positions as they attempted to juggle their schedules to accommodate the Olympics and the changes to the tour schedules caused by the Olympics.
If golf is largely ignored by those outside the usual golf audience, there appears to be a good chance the sport will not make it past 2020, which probably won’t draw much more attention than golf’s Atlanta snub.
Golf has made it this long without Olympic involvement, and will be fine if that’s the case again in the near future.