Golf returns to Olympic competition

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — For the first time since 1904, golf returned to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the 2016 Summer Olympics. It was an exciting time for spectators but getting the game back into the athletic contest following its 112 year absence was an extremely difficult task. Some wondered if golf even belonged on the Olympic stage.

“We had to convince the top players if you were an Olympic athlete, if you were named to be on the team will you in fact play because in golf, we’re fortunate to have a number of tent pole events around the year,” golf industry leader, Ty Votaw said. “Four major championships, the Ryder Cup, Presidents Cup, Solheim Cup, The Players Championship, etc. So to add one more event into the golf calendar, there were some people who were saying, is that really something we need in our sport?”

Prior to joining the PGA TOUR, Votaw served as Commissioner of the LPGA. He’s now retired but still serves as a consultant and says golf’s return to the Olympics was a team effort that took countless hours.

“All the organizations that are leaders in golf, all the acronyms of LPGA and PGA TOUR and USGA and R&A, European tour, etc. they all came together to say this is right for our sport,” Votaw said. “And I was just fortunate enough to be a part of it.”

For 18 months he traveled the globe lobbying, meeting with International Olympic Committee members some of them were royalty, to convince the world that golf belonged in the Olympics.

“Fear of failure has always driven me and so the fact that we could lose the vote was something that drove me forward and only made me want to work that much harder to get a successful outcome,” Votaw said.

Neatly tucked away in the corner of Votaw’s Ponte Vedra office are a set of golf clubs. They’re not for play. Instead, the clubs serve as a reminder.

“These don’t get touched,” Votaw said. “These belong to an LPGA player named Louise Suggs.”

A founder of the LPGA Tour, Louise Suggs’ love for the game birthed generations of professional golfers.

“I was very close to Louise and when she passed, she asked that I have those clubs,” Votaw said.

His office is consumed with astonishing stories.

“That’s the first tee of the first day of the Olympic golf competition,” Votaw said, while showing Good Morning Jacksonville Anchor, Keitha Nelson around the room.

The actual tee used in the 2016 Summer Olympic games in Rio sits on a table in his home office.

“This is a photo of Justin Rose his chip on 18th green on the final day of the Olympic golf competition,” Votaw said.

There’s a note written on the photo that reads, Ty thanks for all of your help and hard work in championing golf’s return to the Olympics. It’s signed by Justin Rose.

On October 9, 2009 the IOC voted in favor of golf being added in the 2016 Summer Olympic competition. But the site chosen for 2016, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil did not have a golf course that was up to par.

“So we had to build a golf course,” Votaw said. “We made at least 12 visits from 2010 to 2016 on just the golf course, preparations alone. And today, that golf course still exists. It’s a public golf course, the only public golf course in the country of Brazil.”

He calls it a “satisfying accomplishment” right up there with growing the game by exposing the discipline to a wider range of future athletes.

“What are your hopes for the future of this sport you love,” Nelson asked Votaw. He simply responded by saying, “To bring it to as many people as you can possibly bring it to.”

Louise would be proud.

To view Votaw’s full Change Makers interview check out FCN Plus on Roku and FireTV and the First Coast News YouTube Channel.