Lexi Thompson often putts with her eyes closed. You won’t catch her staring a hole in the International Golf Federation rankings, either, even though they’ll ultimately determine the field for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
“I don’t really focus on it too much,” she said, “but I know where I stand.”
Ranked third in the world, Thompson is in excellent position to qualify for the first Olympic golf tournament since 1904. As we celebrate National Golf Day, only eight more weekends remain for prospective Olympians to make the cut for Rio.
“It’s incredible to have golf back in the Olympics after such a long time,” Thompson said, “Especially on the women’s side I think it will grow our fan base even more."
She said the men, who play Aug. 11-14, will pique worldwide interest in the sport, carrying over to the women’s tournament Aug. 17-20. Thompson also believes people viewing traditional Olympic sports like gymnastics or swimming “will just continue to watch and see golf as well. It’s huge for the game. We’re all super excited and we’re working very hard to be on that team.”
Compared to 112 years ago, when 75 men from two countries – the U.S. and Canada – played in St. Louis, the qualification system is extremely complicated and should produce tremendous diversity. (Women last played in 1900.)
The qualification period to earn ranking points started July 14, 2014, and concludes July 11, 2016. Only 60 players will qualify for each of the 72-hole stroke play tournaments, with a maximum of four players per country if all rank in the Top 15. Otherwise, the maximum is two per nation.
“If you play more tournaments and play poorly, your divisor goes up and your world ranking points actually go down,” said Stacy Lewis of the U.S., who is ranked No. 4 in the world and also virtually certain of competing in Rio. “Playing good golf – that’s what’s going to get you there.”
As of the May 16 rankings, Lydia Ko of New Zealand and Inbee Park of Korea are 1-2 among the women. Team USA could also be represented by Cristie Kerr, who is ranked No. 16, and Gerina Piller, at No. 17, if they move into the Top 15 by the cut-off date.
On the men’s side, Jordan Spieth (No. 2), Bubba Watson (No. 4), Rickie Fowler (No. 5) and Dustin Johnson (No. 7) are on track to make Team USA. Jason Day of Australia leads the men’s list, which features 35 countries and counts Mardan Mamat of Malaysia at No. 375 as the lowest-ranked player. There are 34 countries represented in the women’s standings with Albane Valenzuela of Switzerland coming in at No. 473.
Golf was voted back onto the Olympic program in 2009 by the International Olympic Committee.
“It’s one of the things you never even dreamed of, being an Olympian and playing golf,” said Lewis.
Any Olympic dreams she had as a child floated on the water. “I swam,” Lewis said, “so I definitely watched the swimming growing up and got a feel for that.
“But,” she added with a laugh, “I was never good enough to be an Olympian there.”
Now Lewis can swing for gold while her sport moves onto the world’s biggest stage.
“It’s been over 100 years (since golf was in the Olympic Games),” Lewis said. “It’s been something that I think golf needs. Golf needs the exposure.
“It’ll be huge for us to reach so many other countries and to be on network television for four days. We don’t ever get that, so it’s going to be a big deal for women’s golf and for golf in general.”
More exposure will boost development worldwide, with people taking up the sport for recreation as well as competition.
“It’s going to expose golf to kids that have never seen it before,” Lewis said, “and that’s the goal: get more kids playing around the world. Who knows? We might bring an LPGA tournament to their country if they get good enough.”
However, Lewis, who has won 11 tournaments, including two majors, doesn’t believe the Olympic Games will be treated as “the sixth major” in her sport.
“Majors get you into the Hall of Fame,” she said. “I think of the Olympics as its own separate entity. With the majors, we have five chances to win one every year, but an Olympic medal, you’ve got one chance every four years to win it.”
Thompson, 21, is among the wave of successful young players who turned pro after golf rejoined the Olympic family seven years ago. She has already won seven tournaments, including the Honda LPGA Thailand in February, and was just 16 when she became the youngest golfer in history to win an LPGA event – the 2011 Navistar Classic.
“I don’t think anything would be better than a gold medal,” Thompson said. “I’m looking forward to the whole Olympic village experience – just being around all these amazing athletes and seeing how they interact and how they train.”
Olympians from other sports are ready to welcome golf back into the fold, too.
“It’s amazing what being in an Olympics can do and I think it will help golf reach so many more people, which is really the main goal of the Olympics: to inspire and reach out,” said swimmer Missy Franklin, who won four gold medals and a bronze at the London 2012 Olympic Games. “For golf to be there, it’s going to be amazing for the new generation to see golf in a way they’ve never seen it before. It’s going to be so special for all these athletes, for all the hard work they’ve put in, to be able to show it on a stage like the Olympics. I’m so excited for them and excited for golf.”
Franklin and Olympic champion skier Lindsey Vonn were drumming up enthusiasm for Rio prior to the ANA Inspiration, the first major of the year.
Vonn said the Games have the ability to showcase any sport.
“Men’s golf is so popular everywhere,” she said, “but women’s golf has a lot more room to grow and I think the Olympics will be an amazing platform for that.”
Lewis said she expects Rio will be “an experience unlike anything else."
That will hold true for her personally as well as professionally. Lewis will miss the Opening Ceremony in Rio on Aug. 5 because she’s marrying University of Houston golf coach Gerrod Chadwell in Connecticut a day later.
"Rio’s going to be an extended honeymoon,” she said.
Lewis and her fellow players hope the Olympic Games and golf will be a marriage made in heaven for a long, long time.