Interview With IGF Executive Director Scanlon

By David Shefter
May 20, 2011

International Golf Federation Executive Director Antony Scanlon is excited about what golf's inclusion in the 2016 Olympics will do for the global growth of the game. (John Mummert/USGA)

In November 2010, the International Golf Federation, based in Lausanne, Switzerland, named Antony B. Scanlon of Australia as its executive director. Scanlon had spent the previous seven years working for the International Olympic Committee, also based in Lausanne, as head of Olympic Games coordination, operations and services. His Olympics background and love of the game of golf were qualities that the IGF sought as it moves toward golf’s inclusion in the Olympics in 2016 after a 112-year absence (it was last played in the St. Louis Games of 1904). Scanlon recently visited USGA headquarters in Far Hills, N.J., where he toured the facility, met key personnel and discussed his new role and duties with senior staff writer David Shefter: 

I see that you spent some time with the International Olympic Committee. What did your job duties entail? 

Scanlon: I was part of the project planning of an organizing committee from the moment they were awarded the Games right through the Games themselves. It’s putting together and monitoring a project plan. And then being a liaison to coordinate and advise them. Then during the Games, it was running the Games Coordination Office, which was the central operational hub of the Games.

With golf now being included in the Olympic program, was that something that drew you to the IGF? 

Scanlon: Definitely a marriage. I grew up in golf. My uncle was a professional and a player. Some of the best holidays I ever had were going down to his golf course (Port Kembla) and getting up at 4 a.m. and working in his pro shop and then playing golf when he wasn’t giving lessons. And I’ve always played it – badly [he actually plays to a 12 handicap]. I have friends who play on the [professional] tours and so I’ve gone to quite a few major events. I think the way golf puts together majors across the board … they are probably some of the best-run events you can go to. I always used to say to my wife laughingly that I’ve used them as professional development. I go to a golf tournament to learn how the event was put together.

Did your uncle play in tournaments as well? 

Scanlon: In those days in Australia, you had to be both a touring pro as well as a [club] professional at a golf course. It was pretty hard to make money in those days. So if he was playing the Australian Open or the New South Wales Open, dad would take me down and I would watch him (Doug Canty) play. Invariably he would make the cut. From that, I always had a love for the game and always played a lot of it. Then when this opportunity came along – to have a sport I have an affinity with to take on the skill sets I have had with the Olympics and also creating a federation from scratch – it was sort of something that I was silly enough to try and see if they were interested in me.

What is happening in Australia with the sudden surge of great players coming out of the country? 

Scanlon: I think it’s accessibility. You are able to pick up a club and play the game of golf, on a nine-hole course or even an 18-hole championship course. There is that accessibility. And because you have some great role models like Greg Norman and [two-time U.S. Women’s Open champion] Karrie Webb … where people see there are some great opportunities to play a sport and be a professional at it and have a great lifestyle. I think everybody in Australia loves sport. And everyone dreams to be a professional in a sport. But not everyone can be. Golf is one of those sports where you can make a great living at it as a club pro, touring pro or just working in a golf club.

The USGA is now drawing around 35,000 entrants a year for its 13 national championships. The number of international players entering has been staggering over the past decade, even from non-traditional regions like the Czech Republic, Russia, New Caledonia and Africa. Since taking over at the IGF, what are you seeing globally? 

Scanlon: Since the sport has come under the Olympic program, the interest from pockets of countries which normally wouldn’t have golf [has grown]. About two months ago I had the opportunity to talk to 22 sports ministers and presidents of [former] Eastern Bloc international Olympic committees through the Russian Olympic University, and all of them are looking at ways of developing golf and finding pathways for juniors to eventually become Olympic athletes. It’s now become an aspiration for both women and men in a sport that normally wouldn’t have any opportunities. In Russia, for instance, they are developing five new golf courses, which links to development in the ski resorts, which now will become full-time resorts: skiing in the winter and golf during the summer. And that’s dovetailing with the Russian Golf Federation to try and develop the game as well.

The other thing it’s doing by getting recognition from the International Olympic Committee, the national golf governing bodies are now getting access to funding that they normally wouldn’t have for the development programs. It’s given them credibility within the eyes of their national government. Hopefully that will lead to more kids playing in those countries.

Does it boggle your mind when you see golfers coming from Russia, Poland and even Africa sans South Africa? 

Scanlon: Yes. I think that’s because it is starting to become more accessible. That’s the key. And that’s one of the key things the IGF has to do is try and find pathways to make it accessible in whatever format it can be. In Africa, it’s accessibility to golf clubs or maybe a one- or two-hole practice facility. In Australia, juniors, as they are developing, are getting access to better quality courses. Here [in America] you’ve got great support from the PGA of America with great instructors to ensure that.

Is that the IGF’s role now, to go to some of these developing countries to get the word out that golf is a viable game for everyone? 

Scanlon: I think our role is to show that for countries that haven’t seen it as a sport [before] now that it is an Olympic sport, it gives it credibility for governments now to start looking at funding programs. For us, showing there is a direct pathway from a development program through to becoming an Olympian, we need to show how it can happen. It’s not going to happen tomorrow, but by developing these programs, you can produce Olympic athletes in golf. But let’s say they don’t. Let’s say they are just playing the game. There’s a benefit from that. It’s not just producing Olympic athletes, it’s expanding the game to people who may not have [had the opportunity].

For the 2016 Olympics, how is golf going to work in terms of the number of participants? 

Scanlon: At this stage, we’re limited to a field of 60 per gender. So there will be 60 men and 60 women. The qualification system that the IOC was presented was the top 15 golfers on World Rankings would qualify. And then after that, a maximum of two [players] per country until we reach the 60. I think approximately with both men and women, you get around 28 to 30 countries.

Does the IOC envision that someday 100 countries will be represented, even if they weren’t in the top 100 or 200 in the Official World Golf Ranking? 

Scanlon: The problem with the Olympics is that it’s so popular that it is becoming more and more complex. And so the IOC has put a ceiling on the number of athletes who can compete. So to incorporate 28 sports and to keep under, I think it’s 10,000 athletes, it would be very hard to increase our numbers. If we can, great. But at this stage, given the current program, we are happy just to have 60 men and 60 women.

We’ve seen in the last 20 years Korea explode onto the golf landscape. Australia has produced a lot of talent in that same time frame. Do you see an emerging golf country? 

Scanlon: That’s probably not the question for me at this stage. I definitely see growth in the Eastern Bloc countries. I also see growth in Africa and obviously South America. In South America, it’s being reflected by the trickle-up effect of the PGA Tour. I know the PGA Tour is also looking at developing a satellite tour in South America to capitalize on that. I see more good golfers coming out of South America and hopefully some out of Africa who are not from South Africa.

What is the current buzz for the Olympics in Brazil, and especially with golf? 

Scanlon: They are really excited. The organizing committee and the people we have been dealing with are excited that golf will be making its debut in Rio [de Janeiro]. So they want their Olympics to be a great Olympics, but they also want success from golf.

Where are they in terms of building a championship venue? 

Scanlon: We’re getting close at looking at two possibilities. Obviously one is to modify an existing course and the second one is building upon a site that has already been designated for a golf course. We’re very close to a decision with the organizing committee on that.

You talked earlier about accessibility. Is that the biggest issue facing golf? 

Scanlon: It’s always been one of the issues. Breaking down perceptions that it is an elite sport is another barrier. And national governing bodies and the governments around them have to try and come up with solutions and strategies that are long-term thinking instead of short-term thinking.

Have you attended many USGA events? 

Scanlon: I only have been to four U.S. Opens. It is one of my favorite events. It’s a well-run event. My first one was at Olympia Fields in Chicago (2003). I was living in Chicago at that time, so it was special for me. It was the second major I ever went to.

What impressed you when you attended these major championships, especially the U.S. Open? 

Scanlon: There was nothing that shocked me because of what I have seen in the Olympics. But what I saw was the attention to detail to the different clients. That’s one reason why golf events are well-run, because they understand the different clients. They know how to look out for the athletes, which includes their entourage and family. They know how to look after the volunteers. The Rules officials are seen as special. Even the spectators are made to feel special. It’s true for the U.S. Open and all the other majors I went to.

How much golf do you play? 

Scanlon: I have played nine holes this year. Hopefully I will get a little bit more time over summer.

Is it helpful to be located in Lausanne next to the IOC headquarters? 

Scanlon: I meet every month with the IOC sports department and they are helping us with Rio and also helping us with our program.

Have the other sports governing bodies been welcoming in terms of now being part of the Olympic program? 

Scanlon: Fantastic. They call it the Olympic family and it certainly feels that way. Where our offices are, there are 10 or 12 other international federations. It’s a great community and a great resource. When somebody is facing an issue or has got some ideas, you get a knock on your door, have a cup of coffee and you talk it out. And the same if you have an idea. You can go and knock on somebody else’s door. I find an openness to share and help one another.

Golf does have four major championships as well as other big events like the World Golf Championships and The Players Championship. What’s the feedback been like from players regarding an additional big competition on the calendar? 

Scanlon: To me you can’t see it as a major. You see it as the Olympic Games. And between now and the Olympic Games, you’ve got 20 opportunities to win a major. And they are only going to have one opportunity to win an Olympic medal. For some people you have a strong opinion of the Olympics like Australia, where you grow up with it. To have that opportunity, it’s one shot. You’ll be trying as hard as you can to have that opportunity to represent your country. There are very few opportunities to represent your country now in golf. The Ryder Cup is Europe and the Presidents Cup is the rest. Unfortunately, [the WGC-World Cup] doesn’t get a lot of publicity, but it’s a great event and a traditional event. Maybe the Olympics could stimulate that.

Golf is going to be a 72-hole individual competition for men and women at the Olympics. Was there any discussion of adding a team element? 

Scanlon: The format we came up with was based on what the players wanted. That’s the reason why we presented it to the IOC. They saw it as the best way to determine a champion.

Tennis was added to the Olympic program in 1992. Was there discussion at all about what it’s like being part of the Games? 

Scanlon: Personally I have a good relationship with the International Tennis Federation and there’s a lot to learn from them. It’s a natural progression for the athletes themselves. I don’t want to talk for tennis, but tennis made a commitment by ensuring that the players would participate. One of the tools they used was by giving world ranking points. It gave credibility to the event. And then naturally, more and more players like the golfers are seeing that it only comes once every four years. Just watch the reaction of [Switzerland’s] Roger Federer winning the gold medal in doubles in Beijing, because that was his desire to win an Olympic medal. In Beijing for men and women, I think they had all but two of the top 30 players. So the commitment is there. They didn’t have to do much except create the right environment. That’s what we have to do [for golf].

Are there any doubters among the golf community about the Olympics? 

Scanlon: I haven’t come across anybody who is not on board. Not only are they seeing the individual opportunity, but they also see the global effect of the benefits the Olympics does to sport.

The Olympics are unique in that they bring together athletes from a variety of sports. How much does that play a role in the excitement and anticipation for the golf community? 

Scanlon: You have the equivalent of 34-odd world championships happening at once. In the Olympic Village, you have 10,500 athletes from 205 different countries eating together, exercising together and sharing a home. That’s unique. Sport does the talking and they are sheltered from the media and everything else outside that. So it’s a very special environment in the Village.

Golfers have obviously seen the Olympics on television and a few might have attended one. Have you talked to golfers about what they are going to experience in 2016? 

Scanlon: One of our plans for London [in 2012] is to use that as an education opportunity for us, not only just for the athletes but also for the officials to understand what is the overlay of the Olympics and what effect will it have on the golf tournament. Hopefully we’ll have the opportunity to bring a couple of golfers to the Village to experience that so they become our spokesmen for the rest of the athletes. This is what the differences are between an Olympic Games and a major championship.

Has golf rearranged its schedule for 2016 so that the Olympic Games don’t trample on the majors, especially the PGA Championship, which is held the same month as the Games? 

Scanlon: Part of the agreement given to the IOC was to insure there would be no conflicts. So the PGA [Championship] has moved its dates.

Twenty years from now, what do you think the landscape of golf will look like? 

Scanlon: Instead of 20 countries, I would like to see about 40 countries competing. That’s only four Olympics away. We have a responsibility with the players to do a great event in 2016, so the IOC members will see that we are adding value and assets to the Olympic program. Then after that hopefully the development programs are kicking in and the access to the funding and to the sport will produce more and more kids playing the game.

 

 

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