Does the name Siddikur Rahman ring a bell? I thought not. Only the most avid golf fan is familiar with Rahman, who is considered the “Tiger Woods of Bangladesh” in his native country.
Rahman, the only Bangladeshi to compete and win an event on the Asian Tour, was ranked 361st in the latest World Golf Rankings. If that ranking holds, he’ll get the 60th and final spot in the field for the men’s Olympic golf competition, which returns to the Games in Rio de Janeiro this August.
Simply making it would be a triumph. Bangladesh, a nation of 160 million, has never won an Olympic medal of any kind. No Bangladeshi has even officially qualified for the Games, though the International Olympic Committee has given them wild-card representatives since 1984.
So imagine if Rahman, 31, who is 5-foot-5 and began playing at age 8 with a homemade iron, wound up on the medal stand with, say, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy in Brazil.
Or how about Michelle Koh shocking the world and bringing home the first-ever Olympic gold medal in the history of Malaysia?
Those would be wonderful sports stories, the kind that would celebrate golf’s global appeal and justify putting it back into the Olympics.
Golf was contested (men’s and women’s) at the 1900 Games in Paris, and again in 1904 in St. Louis. But it was dropped after the British players boycotted the 1908 Olympics in London. A century later, in July of 2008, the International Golf Federation launched a campaign to bring the sport back.
In 2009, the IOC voted golf into the Olympics, acknowledging the sport’s rising popularity around the world and seizing an opportunity to grow it further. Ty Votaw, the former LPGA commissioner, led the effort as IGF vice president and executive director of the Olympic golf committee.
“The international landscape for golf has changed dramatically,” Votaw said last week via email, “making it much more appealing as an Olympic sport. The top 10 world rankings for both men and women regularly feature players from as many as a dozen different countries.
“Also,” Votaw wrote, “the makeup of the PGA Tour, LPGA, European Tour, Web.com Tour and other tours today have strong international representation.”
In the democratic spirit of the Games, the IGF wanted to ensure that as many nations as possible be able to participate. There will be 60 spots in the men’s and women’s fields, based on the official World Golf Rankings as of July 11, 2016.
Golfers in the top 15 of the world rankings will be eligible − but no more than four of that 15 from a single country. That means Patrick Reed, who was 10th in the March rankings (behind U.S. countrymen Spieth, Bubba Watson, Rickie Fowler and Dustin Johnson) wouldn’t make it if those rankings held.
Outside the top 15, a country can place only two players in the men’s and women’s field. As host country, Brazil is guaranteed at least one participant. Based on the March rankings, there would be 36 nations in the men’s event and 34 in the women’s.
There were three U.S. women in the top 15 of the world rankings in March (Lexi Thompson, Stacy Lewis and Cristie Kerr). South Korea had four (Inbee Park, Sei Young Kim, Ha-Na Jang and Amy Yang.)
The competition will be individual only, with the players competing over 72 holes in a stroke-play format, with no cut. All 60 players will play 72 holes. There will be a three-hole playoff in the event of ties.
Votaw said the top golfers were consulted and felt that was the best way to determine medals. But he said the committee will review the event and determine if team competition might be included in the future.
Not everyone is excited about golf’s return to the Olympics. Critics say the Games are bloated with sports as it is. So is the golf schedule, which has become nearly a year-round enterprise and already has major international events in the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup.
Australian Adam Scott, a former Masters winner and world No. 1, dismissed the Olympics as an “exhibition” that would suffer from a substandard field and take away from the more traditional sports in the Games. He said months ago he wouldn’t take part.
Last month, Rio organizers conducted a test event at the Olympic course to give players a feel for the place. No professionals bothered to show up.
But Votaw said he’s confident that all the eligible golfers will come to Rio. “The response from potential Olympians has been overwhelmingly positive about the opportunity to represent their country and experience the Olympics as an athlete,” he said.
The stars seem to feel that way. Spieth said he looks at the Olympics as a fifth major. He said he looks forward to marching in the Opening Ceremonies and staying in the athletes’ village. McIlroy is also excited about the Games. Though he’s from Northern Ireland and a citizen of the United Kingdom, he’ll compete for Ireland, for whom he played his amateur golf.
Even Scott seems to have softened his stance. Ian Baker-Finch, the Australian captain, said recently that Scott expects to play. Baker-Finch said Jason Day, who is No. 1 in the world, is “pumped” to play for Australia in Rio.
As for the weakened fields, Votaw said that’s part of an Olympics. Golf isn’t the only sport where lesser athletes get into the field. For example, he said, the fourth-best sprinter in Jamaica is faster than a runner who makes the field from a country with far fewer quality sprinters.
That’s fine with me. It’s the inclusive nature of the Olympics that makes them special. There’s something moving about a small country with a few athletes marching in the Opening Ceremonies, in the same parade with rich, powerful nations that bring hundreds of athletes.
Golf is becoming a universal game. Fans should embrace an event that could feature teen-ager Aditi Ashok, the only Indian woman to win the Ladies European Tour school; or put Miguel Tabuena of the Philippines and Fabrizio Zanotti of Paraguay in the same tournament as Spieth, McIlroy and Day. Neither of those countries has ever won an Olympic gold.
Those are the kind of stories that make the Olympics worth it, that touch the heart of the most hardened cynic. I’ll have my fingers crossed until July, hoping the Tiger Woods of Bangladesh holds on to his spot.