How Do Golfers Qualify For The 2020 Olympics? We Break Down Their Road To Tokyo

By Karen Price | July 02, 2018, 3:40 p.m. (ET)

Matt Kuchar swings at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 on Aug. 14, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.

 

The road to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 for the world’s top golfers is officially underway.

The qualification period for the men opened on Sunday, July 1, and will last through June 22, 2020. The women’s qualification period begins July 8 and runs through June 29, 2020.

Both the process for qualifying and the format for the tournament, to be held at Kasumigaseki Country Club, remain unchanged from the Olympic Games Rio 2016, when golf returned to the Olympic program for the first time since 1904. 

That means the pressure is on for American golfers.

In the 2020 qualification period is anything like it was in 2016, there could be more eligible American golfers than there are U.S. spots in Tokyo.

So how does it all work? Let’s take a look:

How big is the Olympic golf tournament?

Like in Rio, the field will include 60 men and 60 women.

How are those fields determined?

It’s all about the Olympic Golf Rankings, or OGR. But those quotas will be filled in different ways.

The most straightforward way to get in is by being ranked among the top 15 when the qualification period ends. However, the key is that no country can send more than four athletes per team that way. So if five Americans are in the top-15, only the four highest-ranked among them will qualify.

What about the other 45 golfers?

The rest of the places go to the highest-ranked players from countries that don’t already have two qualified, for a limit of two per country. In addition, host country Japan will get at least one golfer, as will each of the five continents of the Olympic Movement — Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania. 

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Are the Olympic Golf Rankings the same as the world rankings?

No, the OGR list is put together using criteria specific to Olympic qualification. Points are awarded based on strength of field and a player’s finish at eligible tournaments, and results closest to the Olympics will carry more weight than results, say, over the next two months.

So what tournaments are eligible?

On the men’s side, 20 tours are eligible. Importantly, that list includes the domestic PGA Tour, as well as U.S.-based developmental Web.com Tour. The women’s list includes nine tours, among them the LPGA Tour.

How do golfers accumulate points?

You might need a computer for this one.

First, tournaments are graded based on the strength of the field, and that determines how many rankings points are awarded to the top finishers.

From there, players accumulate points over a two-year “rolling” period, with past results losing value the further they fall into history. So any points earned within the previous 13 weeks are weighted at 100 percent, but each previous week’s points are devalued by 1.1 percent. And points earned more than 91 weeks prior? Those drop off the player’s record.

Next come the rankings. Players are ordered based on the average number of points they earned at each tournament during the two-year period.

What if someone wins one eligible tournament and never plays again?

Women must play in at least 35 events, and men must play in at least 40, to be eligible for Olympic qualification.

How did Team USA do last time?

In Rio, the U.S. was the only nation to send four men — Bubba Watson, Rickie Fowler, Patrick Reed and Matt Kuchar, with Kuchar winning the bronze medal. Three women — Lexi Thompson, Stacy Lewis and Gerina Piller — represented the U.S., second only to South Korea, the only nation to send four women. Lewis had the top finish among the U.S. contingent, tying for fourth place.

How did the rest of the world do in Rio?

A total of 34 nations were represented in both the men’s and women’s tournaments in 2016. Great Britain’s Justin Rose won the gold medal for the men, with Henrik Stenson of Sweden claiming silver and Kuchar the bronze. Inbee Park of South Korea won the gold medal for the women, with New Zealand’s Lydia Ko taking silver and China’s Shanshan Feng the bronze.

Who would qualify today?

Remember, the OGR just started! But if you assumed the OGR would look a lot like the current world rankings, you’d have a lot of eligible Americans. As of Monday, four of the top six ranked male golfers in the world were Americans: Dustin Johnson (1), 2017 PGA Championship winner Justin Thomas (2), two-time defending U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka (4) and Jordan Spieth (6). If the selections were made today based on standings alone, that would mean that none of the 2016 U.S. Olympic men’s team would be returning, even though Fowler (7), Reed (11) and Watson (12) are all ranked in the top 15. Kuchar is 27th.

On the women’s side, three U.S. golfers are currently ranked in the top 15: Thompson (6), Jessica Korda (8) and Cristie Kerr (13). Michelle Wie is just outside at No. 17. Of the other 2016 Olympians, Lewis is 31st, while teammate Piller is unranked, having just given birth to her first child in April.

What is a golfer declines a spot in the Games?

That happened in 2016, when Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson, the top two American male golfers at the time, were among a number of top men’s golfers who withdrew from consideration, many citing concerns about the Zika virus and safety in Rio. Watson (No. 6 in the world at the time) and Fowler (No. 7) qualified based on the rankings. Reed (14) and Kuchar (17) replaced Spieth and Johnson.

So qualification remains the same. What about the 2020 format?

There were rumblings that the format would change ahead of the 2020 Games, perhaps adding a team component, mixed gender pairings and/or a match play format. Alas, things will remain the same in Tokyo. Players will compete in a 72-hole individual stroke play tournament — 18 holes for four days — with a three-hole playoff if necessary to determine medal winners in the event of a tie. 

Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.