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Golf in the Olympics – a personal view from Howard Swan

10.09am 31st May 2016 - Opinion

Howard Swan expresses his personal view of Golf in the Olympics … The golf course architect hopes that the return of Golf as an Olympic sport will encourage the governments of the world, particularly at the frontiers of golf, to see the game as valuable to their natural, financial and social development and to see a chance for expansion and investment

Howard Swan
Howard Swan

It is quite wonderful that the game of golf has found its way back in to the Olympics after some 112 years in the wilderness. St Louis, in 1904, seems like it was in another age. Goodness knows why a game like ours, having a global presence, could have been absent for so long!

Perhaps then, as well as now, despite its origins in Scotland, its image as an elitist, non-inclusive sport did not help its cause. That seems to me a great pity as there is little doubt that golf is characterised by principles, behaviour and camaraderie which is entirely consistent with the Olympic spirit.

Some of us have always believed it is a game for all; in my case trying to conceive and lay out facilities, courses and practice areas where the game could be introduced, which then allows someone to be so sucked in and mesmerised by its very nature. The opportunity is always there to develop skills, to meet the challenge – no matter where it might come from: the game itself, the course or your opponent.

But it is clear that some feel it has not become that game for all, perhaps most evidently until recently, by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) itself. So the Olympic golf tournament in Rio is long overdue and owes much to the endeavour of the R&A, the USGA and, of course, the International Golf Federation (IGF).

However, it’s a great shame they couldn’t have been more inventive than a 72-hole strokeplay competition – one for men and one for women. It has been referred to as just another step on the Tour and some have suggested it is unfortunate the Tour must be interrupted by going to Rio. Does that really convey an Olympic spirit?

Perhaps a matchplay tournament, between nations – male and female teams or individuals – might have worked better. It should not be just the pros getting off the plane for a week in Brazil before then heading off to another tournament.

I appreciate Olympic golfers from all over the world might need to qualify for the games to demonstrate their ability to play among the best, but where is the enticement of the challenge of the Jamaican bobsleigh team or our own Eddie the Eagle? That spirit seems to be missing from the game’s return.

However, let’s look at it positively. The tournament will be played on a fine golf course, no doubt, designed by a very talented and experienced golf course architect. By all accounts, Gil Hanse has laid out an excellent course and it is being maintained by a British greenkeeper and his team.

Having been to Rio a couple of times and spent some time on the site, I realised how sensitive it was, environmentally, but no doubt that the involvement of the Golf Environment Organization (GEO) will have helped ensure it has been developed carefully and responsibly on the rather special piece of land.

I look forward to seeing it in August, seeing how it performs, and watching the players compete for the gold medals. I also hope that the rest of the world will do the same.

If they do, it might just encourage the governments of the world, particularly at the frontiers of golf, to see the game as valuable to their natural, financial and social development and to see a chance for expansion and investment.

I believe we need to ensure Olympic golf is not a one-timer and we see it again in Japan in 2020. It needs to be there. The game needs to emerge from Rio with an enhanced image that it is for everyone – not too expensive, too time-consuming and only for the rich. It needs to have the right kind of legacy.

Let’s hope the Olympics will change that perception and the game will see some of the changes I believe it needs.

Roll on Rio!

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Howard Swan is an independent golf course architect at Swan Golf Designs, working for his son, a third generation designer of the family, practising in some 30 countries for the last 45 years. Apart from his present work – at places like the links at Lossiemouth, in Scotland, on the highly acclaimed 27-hole renovation of Bled in Slovenia, and new exciting new projects in Belfast and Beirut – he has focused much attention on how he feels the game can be grown at grass-roots level.

He has been active in doing so in Mongolia and in India, but, most recently, this thrust has seen him in Africa, establishing with his South African partner, Kwakye Donkor, the Africa Golf Foundation and advancing this not-for-profit organisation’s intent to create Golf Development Centres for education, skills training and enterprise development. This followed the highly successful Africa Golf Summit, co-organised by Swan and held in Johannesburg last September. He is a former president of the British Institute of Golf Course Architects and is now chairman of the Golf Consultants Association.

Howard can be contacted via

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