Fairway Life

BACKING OUT AND SNEAKING IN: WINNERS AND LOSERS OF MEN'S OLYMPIC GOLF QUALIFICATION

Feb 03, 2017

Who's in?

Who's out?

These two questions have been on the forefront of every golf fan's mind in recent weeks. After all, it's been more than a century since we've been able to watch the world's best play for gold, silver, or bronze.

Fears over Zika virus made an otherwise straightforward selection process complex. Here's everything you need to know:

HOW QUALIFICATION WORKED

The 2016 Olympics feature individual competitions on the men's and women's sides. There are 60 players in each field. The International Golf Federation (IGF) handled the selection process for the field. Rather than devising a novel system, the IGF relied on World Golf Rankings.

Still, the selection process did not simply extend an invitation to the world's top 60 golfers. Brazil gained an automatic entry as host, and each continent was also granted at least one representative.

Additionally, no country was allowed more than two golfers. This resulted in 40 countries being represented in the final 60 spots. Each spot went to the highest ranked golfer or golfers in that country.

There was, however, an exception. All of the top-15 players automatically qualified as well. The IGF imposed a secondary limit, capping total entries from each country at four players—if all were among the top 15 in World Golf Rankings. Only Team USA qualified for more than two spots.

At the time the final rankings were assessed, the United States had six players among the top 15 in the world. And this is where the fun began:

BACKING OUT

#2 DUSTIN JOHNSON

Dustin Johnson—the top-ranked U.S. player—walked away from his shot at a gold medal on July 8. "I believe I am making the right decision for me," a statement from Johnson said, "and, most importantly, my family. While I am sure some will be critical of my decision, my hope is that most will understand and support it."

Johnson's withdrawal meant that neither the world number-one or number-two would be part of golf's great return. (Australia's Jason Day had already withdrawn over Zika.) With world number-four Rory McIlroy also sitting out the Rio Games, that left the decision to Jordan Spieth, who had the opportunity to join the field as the highest ranked golfer in the world.

#3 JORDAN SPIETH

Jordan Spieth waited until the very last day before withdrawing from the Olympics. Like the two golfers ranked ahead of him, as well as the one behind, Spieth cited concerns about the Zika virus in his decision.

Spieth hinted that he may not join his fellow Team USA representatives at the end of the Bridgestone Invitational, when he noted that, unlike many Olympic competitors, he had not trained to take part in the Games—the Masters and other majors held far greater sway in his willingness to take perceived health risks.

READY TO GO

#5 BUBBA WATSON

Bubba Watson didn't require any luck or dropouts to make the Olympic cut. For more than two years, he has ranked among the top-10 golfers in the world, usually anchoring himself among the top five.

For Watson, it satisfies an unrealized dream of his wife, a former professional basketball player who missed out on the Olympics due to an injury. The Rio Games also offer Watson a chance for some great seats at other events:

"For me, it's an amazing sporting event that I get to be inside the ropes at. I get to see some of the athletes I've always wanted to see. I get to go to some of the events I've always wanted to watch and then I get to play in it."

#7 RICKIE FOWLER

Rickie Fowler grabbed the final guaranteed spot among the American men. In no danger of falling outside the top-15 cutoff, his fourth-place rank among U.S. competitors ensured that the acceptance of those ahead of him wouldn't affect his eligibility.

Fowler announced his decision on Twitter: "Looking forward to wearing some red white and blue in Rio @Olympics." With the top-four golfers dropping out, Watson and Fowler became two of three highest-ranked golfers in the field. (Sweden's Henrik Stenson was the third.)

SNEAKING IN

#13 PATRICK REED

Dustin Johnson's loss was Patrick Reed's gain. Reed earned his spot when Johnson decided against going to Rio.

A solid finish to the 2015 season plus a good start to 2016 allowed Reed to leap frog Matt Kuchar and several of the game's most well-known veterans, notably Zach Johnson, Jim Furyk, and Phil Mickelson.

#15 MATT KUCHAR

Matt Kuchar made a 12-foot birdie on the final hole of the Bridgestone Invitational. The putt moved him into a tie for third place in the tournament. It also moved him up to 15th in the World Golf Rankings—and got him a ticket to the Olympics.

As the world waited on Jordan Spieth's decision, it's hard to imagine anyone more anxious than Kuchar, who enters a field that's missing 6 of the top 10 golfers in the world and 21 of the top 30.

ODD MEN OUT

#16 BROOKS KOEPKA

A World Golf Ranking of 16 nearly represents the professional peak for Brooks Koepka—so far. Unfortunately, Koepka came up one spot short of joining Watson, Fowler, and other members of Team USA in Rio. For Koepka, it's a case of so close yet so far. At only 26 years old, however, he may find himself in even better form for the 2020 Games.

#18 ZACH JOHNSON

Zach Johnson has been susceptible to some peaks and valleys in his career, and, unfortunately for him, one of those descents took hold in spring 2016. Johnson ranked among the top 15 as late as mid-March but found himself on the outside looking in when it came time to the final rankings that determined the Olympic qualifiers.

#19 PHIL MICKELSON

You would think a decade in the top 5 (2004–2010) would be enough to sneak into the Olympics, but Lefty struggled throughout 2015, and his World Golf Ranking only recently recovered to put him back among the top 20.

#20 JIM FURYK

Excluding a disappointing 2012 season, Jim Furyk has ranked among the top-20 golfers in the world since September 1997. That remarkable consistency—which placed him among the top-5 golfers in 2015—faltered slightly as Olympic qualification approached. Furyk dipped below the top-15 in February 2016.

#23 BRANDT SNEDEKER

Snedeker will be lamenting that golf hadn't returned to the Olympics in 2012, when he ranked among the top-10 golfers for most of the year. By early 2015, he had dropped as low as 63rd. Snedeker climbed back into the top 15 in spring 2016 but found himself at his lowest ranking of the year, 23rd, by summer.

A NEW CHAMPION

Whoever wears the gold medal at the end of the Rio Games will be staking their first claim to supremacy—German Martin Kaymer is the most recent world number-one competing in the Games, a title he held for just eight weeks more than five years ago.

It may not be an open championship, but it's anyone's guess who'll be standing at the top of the podium on August 14.

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