Jordan Spieth competes at the Tour Championship by Coca-Cola on Sept. 27, 2015 in Atlanta.
|Bubba Watson plays a shot fro the water's edge on the first hole during the first round of the Tour Championship by Coca-Cola at East Lake Golf Club on Sept. 24, 2015 in Atlanta.
ATLANTA – Bubba Watson has slipped on a green jacket twice after winning the Masters. Now he wants to know how it feels to wear an Olympic gold medal.
“I would say it would be a little bit bigger than a green jacket,” said Watson, who won at Augusta in 2012 and 2014. “It’s more rare. The game of golf hasn’t seen it in years. And I get to keep that gold medal for life. I don’t have to give it back after a year.”
Masters winners can take their green jacket home, but must bring it back to the clubhouse the following year and leave it there.
No such strings will be attached to a gold medal when golf returns to the Olympic program next August for its first appearance since 1904.
And while there is no multi-million-dollar purse for the Rio 2016 Olympic tournament – and no $10 million bonus like Jordan Spieth claimed Sunday for winning the FedEx Cup – the stakes are still high.
“More than anything, it would be nice bragging rights,” Spieth said, “if I've got a gold medal and somebody that I get to see week-to-week on the PGA Tour has got a silver or bronze.
“Medaling for your country is something special. Winning a gold would be, I believe, like winning a major championship.”
Spieth, 22, won two majors this year: the Masters and U.S. Open. With his 9-under par win Sunday at the season-ending Tour Championship by Coca-Cola, he regained the No. 1 spot in the Official World Golf Rankings.
Those rankings on July 11, 2016, will help the International Golf Federation determine the 60-player men’s Olympic field.
The top 15 world-ranked players will be eligible for the Games with a maximum of four per country. Beyond the top 15, the highest-ranked players from countries that do not have two golfers already qualified will be invited. Brazil is guaranteed an entrant and all geographic regions must be represented.
“We all want to make the Olympic team,” said Spieth, who set a PGA Tour record for most money won in a season ($12,030,465 plus the $10 million bonus). “If anybody says they don't care that much about it, they're lying. This is a special opportunity that may not come around often. Who knows how long golf will even be in the Olympics? Now that it's in, hopefully it continues to be. Hopefully it's exciting.”
Golf is only guaranteed an Olympic spot for 2016 and 2020 and then will undergo re-evaluation.
Before the International Olympic Committee voted it back onto the program in 2009, Tiger Woods made a case for his sport in a promotional video. His star power and eagerness to play in Rio helped sway the IOC members.
Now with Woods battling injuries, Spieth leads the next generation along with Rory McIlroy, who will play for Ireland in Rio, and Australia’s Jason Day.
Spieth said that to represent his country, family and the PGA Tour “the right way down there in front of the biggest (television) audience that we ever play in front of would be fantastic. And it would be something that would certainly get our blood running, I imagine, just like a major championship.”
Only the top 30 players in the world were invited to the Tour Championship at the East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, the home course of the legendary Bobby Jones, and 20 of them were from the U.S.
Because just four can advance to the Olympic Games, players must be at the top of their game the first half of next year.
Watson, who tied for fifth Sunday, is ranked fourth on the world list, followed by Rickie Fowler, who tied for 12th.
Dustin Johnson, who also tied for fifth, was 7-under on his final 11 holes to shoot 64, the lowest round of the day, and move up in the rankings. He is now No. 8, passing Jim Furyk who did not play due to injury. Zach Johnson is ranked No. 10 and Matt Kuchar is No. 15, giving the U.S. plenty of qualified candidates.
“How would you not want to be an Olympic athlete?” Watson, 36, said. “My wife has qualified for the Olympics for basketball (for Canada in 2000) but been injured, so she never got to play.
“The Olympics, everybody watches the Olympics, no matter what sport it is. I want to represent my country and this is probably my only year to have that shot because I'm getting older.”
Dustin Johnson was once a competitive swimmer before turning all of his attention to golf, which had no Olympic connection at that time.
“It was definitely something (where I thought), ‘Why wasn’t it in the Olympics?’” Johnson, 31, said, “So it’s really cool that it is in it now.”
His future father-in-law, ice hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, played for Canada in 1998 and was one of the athletes who ignited the Olympic cauldron in Vancouver five years ago.
“The thing I would look forward most to would be just walking in the opening ceremonies,” Johnson said. “I think it would be awesome. Obviously I’ve talked to Wayne and he said it’s really cool.”
Johnson said he isn’t obsessively checking the rankings.
“It changes every week,” he said. “If I play good golf, it’ll take care of itself.”
Other potential Team USA golfers were enthusiastic and curious about the prospect of playing in the Olympic Games next season.
“I think we’re all a little apprehensive,” said Brandt Snedeker, 34. “We don’t really know what the emotional side’s going to be like once we get there – because it has not been around in our lifetime – but it’s going to be really, really exciting to be part of it.”
|Rickie Fowler hits his tee shot on the fifth hole during the final round of the Tour Championship by Coca-Cola at East Lake Golf Club on Sept. 27, 2015 in Atlanta.
Rickie Fowler said representing the United States for events such as the Ryder Cup, the Presidents Cup and the Walker Cup is “always a lot of fun.”
He even shaved “USA” into his close-cropped hair for last year’s Ryder Cup.
“Can't really say a dream come true just because golf hasn't been in the Olympics for so long,” said Fowler, 26. “But I've always enjoyed watching the Olympics and thinking about how cool it would be to walk in opening ceremonies, closing ceremonies and to be around the best athletes in the world.”
The Olympic golf venue is a new par-71 course built at Reserva de Marapendi in Barra, the district containing the largest number of Rio 2016 venues. It is within 6 miles of the Olympic Village.
To accommodate the 72-hole tournament Aug. 11-14, the PGA will adjust its 2016 schedule. The PGA Championship will move up two weeks (July 25-31) while the Travelers Championship and John Deere Classic will be held in August 2016 instead of their usual June and July dates. The Quicken Loans National, World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational and Barracuda Championship are also moving earlier on the schedule.
Brooks Koepka, 25, doesn’t mind the disruption to the calendar.
“It’s nice to have everything kind of crammed into one because if you’re playing well around that time, that’s how you want it,” he said. “It doesn’t bug me too much. (I’ll) hopefully try to peak around that time.”
Tennis pros have embraced the Olympic Games since their sport was accorded full-medal status in 1988 for the first time since 1924. The “Golden Slam” category has been added to the record books, and stands for winning all four majors and the Olympics. Only Steffi Graf has done it in the same calendar year (1988).
However, Matt Kuchar doesn’t consider the Olympic golf tournament at that level.
“We have so much history in the game of golf and so many unique events,” he said. “The Olympics would certainly be one of those great unique events you’d like to win, but you wouldn’t classify it as a major.”
Still, Kuchar, 37, has set a goal of qualifying for Team USA.
“It’s a big deal for any kid growing up that’s a fan of sports,” he said, “and I was certainly a fan of sport, a big fan of the Olympics, from track and field and swimming to kind of some obscure ones like badminton and table tennis.”
Snedeker recalls watching sprinters Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson in the 1980s and 1990s, and swimmer Michael Phelps in the last three summer Olympics.
“I always marveled at what they do,” Snedeker said, “because they literally trained four years and it’s down to tenths of seconds for some of these guys to make the Olympic team.
“It makes what we do out here completely pale in comparison to the amount of effort and time they put in for one track meet or swim meet. I think everybody out here is kind of in awe of what they’ve been able to accomplish in their career, to be an Olympic athlete.”
Watson also has fond memories of watching track and field, particularly Usain Bolt of Jamaica and “Michael Johnson back in the day running,” he said. “Especially putting on the special shoes he always had. That was pretty cool watching that. So I guess it's always runners I'm watching, because that's just something I can't do. No matter how much I practice, I'm not going to be a runner.
“That's why I play golf.”