GOLF'S return as an Olympic sport four years from now has opened a new opportunity for the Philippines in its bid to end a medal drought that spanned four Games and 16 years.
The sport will be part of the Olympic calendar for the first time since 1904 when the Games go to Rio de Janeiro in 2016, giving the Philippines a fresh battleground and as good an opportunity for success as any of the other sports considered as medal potentials for the country.
Golf after all is a sport where anyone capable of putting together four good rounds – regardless if you’re world No. 1 Rory McIlroy or someone ranked No. 200 in the world – can win a tournament, whether it be a Major, the Olympics or a small-time event in the local circuit.
That means anybody.
The qualifying system proposed by the International Golf Federation – which guarantees the top 15 in the world spots to the 60-man field along with the next 45 players in the rankings but with a cap at two golfers per country – also gives the Philippines a good chance of being represented.
In fact, had golf been part of the 2012 London Games calendar under the proposed system, one Filipino in world No. 161 Juvic Pagunsan would have battled the likes of Tiger Woods and McIlroy for gold while Phil Mickelson, ranked 19th, was left in the freezer.
That the next Games will be held in Brazil, a country without a deep history in the sport, also assures that no one except the home bets will have any distinct advantage in terms of course familiarity.
National Golf Association of the Philippines president Tommy Manotoc admits a couple of Filipino pros are capable enough for a stab at a medal when the Rio Games come around, mentioning Migs Tabuena who won a silver at the last Asian Games at age 16 and should be peaking at 22 come 2016.
“Miguel could be ready for the Olympics by then,” said Manotoc of Tabuena, now a regular on both the local and Asian professional tours at age 18.
Pagunsan, without doubt the best Filipino player of his generation, will be 38 in 2016 and presumably not yet over the hill. Same with Angelo Que and other Filipino mainstays on the Asian Tour.
Although he feels the country’s current batch of professionals is very capable of gunning for Olympic slots, Manotoc fears golf being an Olympic sport “hasn’t really sunk in” yet for the pros.
“They may be concerned right now with prize money and rankings but the Olympics, maybe not yet,” he said.
There is a deeper well of talent in the women’s side, which will also have a gold medal on offer in Rio. A batch of teenagers supported by ICTSI and coached by Bong Lopez has long circled the globe for the needed tournament exposure, and one of them may step up in Rio.
While it will be the professionals who will battle for the gold in Rio, Manotoc has put the NGAP’s focus on laying the foundation for the future, perhaps for the succeeding Games in 2020 where golf’s status as an Olympic sport will be up for review in 2017.
The way up, he said, is to have “a solid foundation in the amateurs.”
With most of the country’s amateur standouts recently turning pro, Manotoc has put together a new batch of golfers which he hopes will carry the country’s colors in the next Southeast Asian Games, Asian Games, the Putra Cup and the world amateurs and, hopefully, take over from the likes of Tabuena and Pagunsan when the 2020 Games come around.
The thrust has seen Manotoc knock on the doors of homes in the United States and convincing Filipino-Americans to play for the Philippine team.
Among those who have given Manotoc their commitment are Rico Hoey, who recently ruled the 15-17 bracket in the Callaway junior world championships; UCLA standout Anton Arboleda and Raymund Gonzales of the Mission Viejo High School golf team also in California.
“They’re very capable,” Manotoc said of new prospects.
These players will now be meshed with rising stars from the local ranks to form the core of future Philippine teams.
“Playing with the national team in international events is really about playing for flag and country, and that’s also when we help them improve as a person and not just as a golfer,” said Manotoc. “That way, we are giving them a solid foundation before they turn pro.”