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Olympic golf has the potential to boost falling participation . . . let's not waste it

IN these rip-roaring times, when life seems to hurtle by like a sprinting fitness freak overtaking a shuffling granny with a wobbly nibbie, we are never done looking forward.

Golfers who intend to compete at the Olympic Games are advised to bring a sand wedge.  Picture: Getty Images
Golfers who intend to compete at the Olympic Games are advised to bring a sand wedge. Picture: Getty Images

As for living in the moment? Well, that's a thing of the past. These days, we are all breathlessly peering into the future with the eye-popping ferocity of a demented clairvoyant working a conveyor belt of crystal balls.

Forget what you're doing this morning; in six months, you could be whooping your lungs dry at the Commonwealth Games. Don't bother with this afternoon; in 241 days, you might be roaring yourself blue with excitement at the Ryder Cup. As good old Dame Vera Lynn warbled: 'it's a lovely day tomorrow' . . . so we may as well ditch the present.

As the countdown to Scotland's big sporting bashes thunders on, the clock is also ticking on golf's return to the Olympic Games. In the summer of 2016 - if you can possibly wait until then - the Royal & Ancient game will reappear at the Games for the first time since Zeus had a gym membership . . . or something like that. By the time the bonanza in Brazil gets going, 112 years will have rolled in since golf last graced such a grand stage.

The stage itself, upon which the golf event will be played out, remains a sizeable work in progress, though. Rather like the frantic guddle to get the football stadiums rattled up in time for this summer's World Cup, you get the feeling the relevant folk involved with Olympic golf will still be careering around the course sticking pins in holes and charging about on mowers  as the first group waddles down the fairway.

The return of the sport to the Games has caused plenty of chin stroking. Where would a gold medal rank on a player's list of priorities given the long-established and cherished quartet of majors that are available each year? Will one of golf's superpowers, Rory McIlroy, even play at all because of the sensitive issue of whether he should represent Great Britain or Ireland?

What impact will the summer showpiece have on the wider global golfing schedule in 2016? And will the somewhat unimaginative, run-of-the-mill, 72-hole strokeplay format really be the best way to announce the game to those parts of the world where it is still very much in its infancy?

Amid the groaning scepticism, this opportunity to grow the game, at a time when participation numbers are falling, is one that must be grasped. Last week, the R&A, the USGA and Augusta National Golf Club unveiled a Latin American Amateur Championship. Like the Asia-Pacific Championship, which was launched in 2009, the Latin American contest has been devised in an effort to accelerate the development of golf in the region, with the sizeable carrot on the stick being a place in the Masters for the winner.

In Brazil, there are only around 25,000 registered players and barely any public courses. The Olympic venue will be left open to the public for two decades after the bandwagon has rolled out of town, but a solid future cannot be built on flimsy ground.

The various legal disputes over land ownership have seriously undermined the project and Gil Hanse, the world renowed architect who won the right to design the course, must be nibbling his finger nails down to the quick. So far some 12 holes and 16 greens have been shaped but there is no grass. The turf is supposed to be put down in March, the whole course is to open by June 2015 and a test event will be held in August of that year. The timetable is becoming tighter than a badly planned train connection at Crewe. Golf courses, by their very nature, need time to mature and Hanse will be all too aware of the perils that could come from opening so close to the Olympics themselves.

"I feel good that we will hit that [June 2015 deadline] but, if you talk to me in two months' time and we haven't started with the irrigation and we don't have some of the other issues on site settled, then my tone might be a little bit more pessimistic," admitted a concerned Hanse recently as he tries to crack on with his links-style creation. "It's been a little bit more difficult than we thought."

Convincing some hardened cynics that golf has a place at the Olympics is proving to be equally as tricky. The elongated palaver over the development of the course, the most basic requirement for showcasing the sport, has done little to lift those negative vibes.

AND ANOTHER THING

The wave of doom and gloom that greeted Tiger Woods' 79 at Torrey Pines made the arrival of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse look like a ray of sunshine.

Yes, it was a bit of an unexpected horror show over one of his happy hunting grounds but the hysterical reaction and premature obituary writing in the aftermath was as pointless as it was predictable. "It's just three days in a long year," said his coach with some calming sense.

Let us all assess things at the end of this long year.

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