Martin Dempster: Rio thriller converted me to Olympic golf

Gold medal winner Justin Rose is the perfect ambassador for Olympics golf. Picture: Getty.

Gold medal winner Justin Rose is the perfect ambassador for Olympics golf. Picture: Getty.

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So, it appears I was one of those who had his head buried deep in Copa­cabana Beach all along about golf’s long-awaited return to the Olympics in Rio.

Even when Paul McGinley, a man I admire greatly, spoke with passion and excitement about the sport being part of the Games again after a gap of 112 years, I honestly couldn’t see what all the fuss was about.

That’s why, in truth, I refused to be critical of the likes of Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy for turning down the opportunity to be there, and it didn’t need any concerns over the Zika virus to form that view either.

Perhaps it’s because I’m a traditionalist and, as such, stubbornly refuse to see anything come close to the majors, for both men and women, in terms of the prizes that really matter.

That’s never going to change, but, as one of those doubters and naysayers, I’m more than happy to admit that I got it totally wrong about golf in the Olympics and, therefore, I apologise to McGinley for thinking he had mistakenly become starry-eyed on this one.

What helped straight away to change my mind was that the men’s event ended up in a thrilling gold medal battle between Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson, the two men who had easily displayed the most enthusiasm about getting the chance to compete in an Olympics in the build-up to the sporting spectacle.

In Rose, the game simply couldn’t have a finer person to be flying the flag as Olympic champion over the next four years, when, contrary again to what I believed before the event got underway, golf must surely reap some benefit from being part of the Games again.

Just look at the viewing figures for the men’s event. In the US, the last 90 minutes of it were watched by an estimated 8.8 million on NBC and the Golf Channel. In Sweden, where there are 4.5 million households, the figure peaked at 1.5 million. To put that into perspective, only the Masters attracted more viewers among the majors this year while the top viewing figure for the Open, despite it being an epic title tussle between Stenson and Phil Mickelson at Royal Troon, was 1.1 million.

At a time when the BBC was going into overdrive about cycling, gymnastics, athletics, tennis, hockey, swimming and equestrianism, well done to Rose in particular but also to Charley Hull and Catriona Matthew, our competitors in the women’s event won by Korean Inbee Park, for ensuring that golf got its fair share of mentions for once.

Let’s not be fooled into thinking our sport has totally lost its appeal, even though we do have to acknowledge that times remain tough for clubs, with the one downside from the Olympics being the horrendously slow pace of play – the final group took five hours and 35 minutes on the first day – in the women’s tournament.

More than ever now, that problem really needs to be addressed once and for all, and it was interesting to see the Golfing Union of Ireland gain an instant improvement in terms of pace of play when it permitted “ready golf”, a system that isn’t based on the player being furthest from the hole having to be the one to hit first, at one of its events last week.

Unlike many of the sports that will no doubt be rammed down our throats in the coming weeks and months on the back of the success enjoyed by Great Britain competitors in them over the past fortnight or so, golf is a game for life and one that can be enjoyed as a family.

Its place in the next Olympics – the 2020 Games in Tokyo – has already been secured and you can bet your bottom dollar that there won’t be a single top player who won’t be there on that occasion.

Let’s give them a Mulligan when that time comes around. Rio, after all, was almost a step into the unknown for golf and it needed what was effectively a test event to convince many of us that it was indeed a positive development for the game, even though it had an adverse effect on tournaments like the Scottish Open and Paul Lawrie Match Play due to scheduling issues.

I can clearly see now why the likes of McGinley, Matthew, Rose and even 80-year-old Gary Player were so enthusiastic about our great sport being back on this stage and will gladly refer to the Rio golfers as Olympians henceforth. They’ve all talked about a great sense of pride to now wear that tag and rightly so.

A shake-up under Dodds could boost emerging talent

How ironic that the start of a new era for Scottish Golf – Blane Dodds taking over as its chief executive – should coincide with a reminder that we seem to have fallen off the pace when it comes to producing top young talent.

I’m referring to the fact that, in the recent Boys Amateur Championship, we failed to get a single player among the 64 qualifiers from the stroke-play phase at Muirfield and The Renaissance Club, though it would be remiss not to acknowledge that our leading junior golfer at the moment, Nairn’s Sandy Scott, was otherwise engaged that week in the men’s Home Internationals on his home course.

Given that Bearsden’s Ewen Ferguson claimed the same title as recently as 2013 at Royal Liverpool, we perhaps shouldn’t read too much into what could just have been an off week and, in Spencer Henderson, we undoubtedly have a coach who can help bring out the best in our young talent.

However, with a new man at the helm, an opportunity to shake things up a bit shouldn’t be missed, especially if it can help improve Scotland’s ongoing struggle to get players ready to hit the ground running in the paid ranks.

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