JACK DILLON, the celebrated golf journalist, had an idea. His home town of Melbourne had recently been awarded hosting rights for the 1956 Olympic Games. He knew the Olympics were strictly for amateurs, that golf had an Olympic history (of sorts), that Melbourne’s golf courses were among the best in the world, and that there was no world amateur golf championship.
To Dillon, it was a perfect fit.
In a front-page story in the Sporting Globe of February 6, 1952, headlined ‘Golf for the 1956 Games’, he wrote: “Golf may be included in the Olympic Games in Melbourne in 1956! The matter is even now, on my suggestion, being eagerly discussed ‘in the right places’. Amateur world golf would, by inclusion in the Olympic Games, be given a tremendous lift. Its status and stature in international sport would thereby be immensely increased.”
A week later, Dillon added, “General reaction to last week’s suggestion that golf should be included in the 1956 Olympic Games has been, ‘Why was not such an obvious matter brought up years ago?’ Players hail the idea as top incentive for ambition. Among the keenest of them are women golfers. Australian Golf Union executives are completely intrigued and the matter is to be included on the agenda for the 1952 annual meeting in Perth.”
Soon, the chairman of the Australian Golf Union, Roy Paxton, was telling the media he was confident golf was going to be part of the Melbourne Olympics. He had contacted the Royal & Ancient Golf Club at St Andrews, and suggested they contact the US Golf Association. “There seems no reason why our plan should not materialise,” Paxton said. “I am sure American golfers will not only approve, but will view the proposition as one that will make possible the greatest series of events in the history of amateur golf. And no more suitable place for such an occasion could be found than Melbourne, with its magnificent courses.”
The New Zealand Golf Association supported the Australian bid, but Olympic representatives and golf’s leading administrators in Britain and the US were less effusive. The Sporting Globe’s UK correspondent, Adrian Ball, claimed “London experts” had told him the proposal was unlikely to be accepted.
“They point out that in 1948, when competitors from all over the world took part in 17 different kinds of sport, there were widespread complaints about the Games ‘getting out of hand’,” Ball wrote. “The inclusion of golf would only aggravate this position.”
Ball added these same experts had pointed out golf was “restricted almost exclusively to English-speaking countries, which limits its possibilities as an Olympic sport”.
Dillon retorted: “It may be doubted whether these ‘experts’ know much about golf. In recent British championships, there have been competitors from Mexico, Argentina, Italy, France, Germany, Philippines, Belgium, Egypt, India, besides all the English-speaking countries – which are numerous.”
The R&A’s principal objection it seemed, was a fear that an Olympic “world championship” would diminish the status of the USA vs Great Britain Walker Cup competition. The body which had overseen world golf since its inception was also wary of handing over control of such an event – even to an organisation as high profile as the International Olympic Committee.
The concept hit a major roadblock on July 17, when Avery Brundage, a US native, was elected as the new IOC president. Brundage made it abundantly clear if he’d been in charge back in 1949, when Melbourne narrowly won the vote to host the ’56 Games, the outcome would have been very different. He was the owner of an exclusive golf club in California, but he wanted fewer sports at his Olympics, not more. It was generally conceded, Dillon mused in October, that golf’s claims to an Olympic berth were at least as valid as basketball and football, “but is now harder to join the Olympic bandwagon than to leave it”.
Adding to the state of flux, the Melbourne organising committee was in disarray, unable even to determine a site for its main stadium. It would not be until 1953 that an agreement was reached with the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Little wonder why Dillon gave up on his Olympic proposal. Instead, he threw his support behind an idea that a major professional tournament would be staged in Melbourne in the lead-up to the Olympics. On November 18, 1956, four days before the flame was lit at the MCG, at nearby Yarra Yarra GC, South Africa’s Gary Player would win what was to that point the richest Ampol Tournament ever staged in Australia.
Keeping the dream alive
Dillon might have given up on golf getting into the Olympics, but from time to time the concept would be revived, though never successfully until 2009, when the decision was made to invite the world’s top professionals to the 2016 and 2020 Games.
Golf had once been an Olympic sport. Paris, 1900 and St Louis, 1904 were staged to coincide with World’s Fairs, and in both instances the golfers involved in what would eventually be recognised as Olympic tournaments could hardly have realised the significance of the events they were competing in. There was a men’s and women’s individual competition in Paris, and a men’s individual and team competition four years later, but the golf in St Louis especially was hardly international, even if a Canadian, George Lyon, won the individual title. There were only three entries in the team event in 1904, all American.
Lyon sailed to London for the 1908 Olympics, only to discover that the Royal & Ancient had inspired a boycott. The secretary of the British Olympic Association, the Rev. RS Laffan, wrote to the R&A, seeking their support, but the committee at St Andrews didn’t respond. Instead, the leading amateurs of the day told pressmen the proposed event would interfere with the “traditions of the game”. One man described it succinctly as “rot”. The defending champion was left as the only entry, and all embarrassed Olympic officials could do was offer him a symbolic gold medal, which he declined.
A lack of quality courses in Sweden meant golf wasn’t part of Stockholm 1912, but the sport was back on the program for the abandoned Berlin Games of 1916 and for Antwerp in 1920. However, the R&A remained as recalcitrant as it had been in 1908. A cable from Mr CS Grace, the Hon. Secretary of the St Andrews Greens Committee, to the Olympic organisers read bluntly: “The club has unanimously resolved to decline to have anything to do with the inclusion of golf in the program of the Olympic Games.” And even though reservations were made for an eight-man US team to sail to Antwerp, the Americans couldn’t get a team together. The competition was abandoned. Golf wasn’t seriously thought of as a potential Olympic sport again until 1952.
[Royal Melbourne would have been the obvious choice to host golf at the 1956 Olympic Games]
Last-ditch pitch for Melbourne
Remarkably, after Dillon had moved on, one more attempt was made to get golf into the Melbourne Olympics. A draft program, featuring the same 17 sports that had been a part of the ’52 Helsinki Games, was released in November 1953. Nine months later, John Jay Hopkins, CEO at General Dynamics Corporation and the entrepreneur behind professional golf’s Canada Cup (now the World Cup), announced he was going to approach the IOC about getting golf on the schedule for Melbourne and future Olympics. Hopkins said his International Golf Association would cover the expenses of a set number of four-man amateur teams.
That approach was quickly rebuffed, but 12 months later Hopkins renewed his offer. Fred Corcoran, promotional director at IGA, explained: “Golf has grown tremendously throughout the world in the last 10 years. It certainly deserves a chance now on the Olympic program, and Mr Hopkins will try to get it that chance. Tennis was given a chance in the 1924 Olympics, but was not included thereafter. It seemed at that time there were not enough countries playing. “Moreover, amateur tennis has its own international competition in Davis Cup play. Amateur golf has no genuine international tournament today.
“Golf should be in the Olympics now. Mr Hopkins will try to arrange it for 1956. If he is not successful for the Melbourne Olympics, it’s merely a question of time before he succeeds.”
But it was too late for Melbourne; Hopkins died in 1957 and then the Eisenhower Trophy – a genuinely international amateur golf competition – was launched by the World Amateur Golf Council (a newly formed body driven by representatives of the R&A and the USGA) in 1958. The inaugural winner of this prize was the Australian team of Doug Bachli, Bruce Devlin, Bob Stevens, and Peter Toogood, which suggests that, had Jack Dillon’s dream come true for ’56, Australia might have had more Olympic heroes to stand alongside Betty Cuthbert, Dawn Fraser, Murray Rose and company. In 1954, Bachli had won the British Amateur championship and Toogood was the leading amateur at the Open Championship. The local golfers would certainly have been competitive.
In 1964, the WAGC rejected a proposal from the South American Golf Federation to push for golf to return to the Olympics. “The council is satisfied that it already has an Olympic Games of golf,” said the Hon. Secretary, Mr Joe Day. At the same time, it was announced an international women’s amateur team event would be introduced in 1966, and that both the men’s and women’s events that year would be held in Mexico City, the site of the ’68 Olympics.
It was as if golf and the Games were close, but not close enough. Frank Pace jnr, who had succeeded John Jay Hopkins at General Dynamics and as director of the Canada Cup, decided to renew the push for an Olympic tournament. “There is no earthly reason why amateur golf shouldn’t be in the Olympics,” he said after Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus won the ’64 Canada Cup. “Golf would add a great deal of dignity to the Olympics.”
Palmer added his weight to the campaign. “Golf deserves a spot in the Olympics as much as any other sport,” he said. “It is the most truly international game.”
But the standoff remained until 1992, when the organising committee for the Atlanta Olympics floated the idea of an Olympic medal event being staged at Augusta National. Again, there was an Australian flavour to the debate, though not in the style of Jack Dillon. Australia’s IOC vice-president Kevan Gosper was an outspoken critic: “I’m not sure it’s the sort of sport that strengthens the direction in which the Olympic movement is going.” None of the R&A, the USGA or the US PGA Tour seemed overly keen, while African-American and female activists questioned Augusta’s membership rules.
The chairman of the Atlanta Organising Committee, Billy Payne, who would become Augusta National chairman in 2006, responded, “In terms of whether golf is good for the Olympic movement and vice versa, I think the answer in both cases is yes.” But he eventually gave up on the idea, with a spokesman providing an explanation that might have come from Dillon himself four decades earlier: “We just felt we better get on with other things.”
Soon after, the Australian Olympic Committee president, John Coates, revealed there was a chance that some new sports would be incorporated into Sydney 2000. Coates stated the three sports with the best chance were “golf, triathlon and tae kwon do”. The latter two sports would make their debuts in Sydney, and are still on the Olympic schedule.
In 2003, the WAGC became the International Golf Federation. Five years later, with the Olympics now a stage for the cream of professional as well as amateur sport, the IGF launched an ultimately successful bid to be included on the Olympic program, which means Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Lydia Ko and Brooke Henderson could tee it up in Rio de Janeiro, alongside famous Olympians such as Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, Neymar Jnr and Serena Williams. If the selection of the Australian flagbearer was chosen on the basis of lifetime sporting achievement, Karrie Webb would be leading the Australian team at the opening ceremony in Brazil.
And if Jack Dillon was still alive, he would surely be thinking: “Why has it taken this long?”