Copa de las Americas competitors such as Laura Blanco, of Colombia, have their sights set on competing in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. (USGA/John Mummert)
Miami – In 1904, when golf was last part of the Olympic Games, just two countries – the United States and Canada – participated. When the sport makes its return in 2016, more countries will be involved.
National golf federations are preparing for 2016 and beyond, and young golfers around the world – including all the players at the 2013 Copa de las Americas – aspire to represent their countries in the Olympic Games at Rio de Janeiro.
“I remember being young and reading about Jesse Owens,” said Peru’s Joaquin Lolas. “I admire him and because of that, I started watching the Olympics. If I can make it there, it will be a dream come true.”
To help their players achieve their goals, national golf associations are developing programs to train elite junior players for the best international competitions. The Argentine Golf Association has established an academy at Pilar Golf Club outside Buenos Aires, to which top junior players from around the country come for weeklong training sessions.
“We are helping 16- to 18-year-olds right now,” said Santiago Garat, Argentina’s national coach. “It is important to develop players from Argentina who will play around the world.”
While the Argentine Golf Association is in discussions with the government to receive funding for their programs, the addition of golf into the Olympics already has resulted in government support for other golf associations.
“Our Olympic committee is with us,” said Ricardo Falla, the Guatemalan national head coach, who noted that his country’s first Olympic medal came at the London Olympics in 2012. “Most of the focus is on individual sports like golf, where there is a better chance to win a medal than in team sports.”
Another small golf nation in which players are receiving government support is Trinidad and Tobago.
“In Trinidad, the sports that are part of the Olympics get most of the funding,” said Marissa Marquez of the Trinidad and Tobago Golf Association. “Now that we are part of the Olympics, we’re hoping we can work closely with the government to have a team that is strong enough to get us there.”
Golf is one of 14 sports supported by the government of Trinidad and Tobago, which has won 18 Olympic medals – most in track and field. Marquez already has seen an increase in the number of junior players in her country since golf was reinstated into the Olympics in 2009.
In addition to benefitting from government support, the Trinidad and Tobago Golf Association has received guidance from The R&A, which jointly governs the game around the world along with the USGA.
“The R&A actually has helped us a lot in bringing professionals to help us develop golf, so we’re very lucky,” said Marquez. “With the support of The R&A, we’re developing a new program to take junior athletes all the way up to the elite-athlete status.”
While golf’s inclusion into the Olympics is spurring golf programs around the world, developing world-class players is a long-term process. Even Canada, a well-established golf nation and the only country other than the United States to win a gold medal in the sport, doesn’t expect instant results.
“We realize that 2016 is only three years from now,” said Robert Ratcliffe, assistant coach of Team Canada. “We are hoping that some of the players that are in the program today are representing Canada in the Olympics in 2020 and beyond.”
For Latin American players, there is a sense of urgency for 2016, when the Olympic Games will be held in South America for the first time.
“I’m very excited about the Olympic Games, and I’m working toward that,” said Colombia’s Laura Blanco. “It opens the window for all the South American players. I think they consider it the same as being home. South American countries are very supportive of each other.”
To reach the Rio Olympics, players will need to be among the best in their countries. For Blanco’s Copa teammate Carlos Rodriguez, that means meeting the standard set by three-time PGA Tour winner Camilo Villegas.
“That is one of my goals,” said Rodriguez. “We have a lot of great players, and I want to be as good as Camilo – and even better.”
Hunki Yun is a senior writer for the USGA. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org