Picture: 123RF/TAKASHI HONMA
Picture: 123RF/TAKASHI HONMA

As a youngster, my friends and I all thought the Olympics were the pinnacle of sporting and athletic achievement, even though it excluded the ball games such as football, cricket and rugby, which we played during our school years,  and for me, at a later stage, golf.

Since these halcyon days, an Olympic medal has become a rather devalued item. Dirtied and tarnished by the primary sports and many top individuals, and indeed the top nations themselves, as they stagger from one scandal to another, be it around selection protocols, financial shenanigans and corruption, or the seemingly endemic problem with performance-enhancing drugs and doping.

Watching the recent Champions League Covid-bubble matches, it was depressing to see top players slouching about and going through the motions, knowing that their ridiculous salaries would still be in the bank at the end of the month, irrespective of their performance levels.

To be fair, golf has had its share of doping scandals. Fortunately, these have been largely limited to the “dopey” decisions made by some of the representatives of the game’s officialdom during several Major championships.

“The modern generation of pro golfers are overpaid and colourless.” This is a criticism I often hear thrown at the world’s top players — generally, it has to be said, from a generation that remembers the “big three” (Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus) and the likes of the inimitable Lee Trevino.

Whatever their faults, the players on the world’s professional golf tours are participants in a real sports’ meritocracy.

At each tour’s preseason qualifying school, finishing in one of the top spots will get you onto the tour. On tour, if a player makes the cut (after 36 holes in most professional tournaments), which determines who will play the last two rounds and then plays well for all four days, he or she will be paid handsomely for their efforts.

Should a player perform well throughout the year and make the Tour all-exempt list, the next year’s schedule can be planned without the concern about what tournaments the player might be able to enter.

Throughout this process, there is no room for comment on the scorecard. This ethos carries through into the very fabric of the game’s structure itself, as there are also no judges to criticise, assess, mark or evaluate your on-course performances.

I can just imagine a Doug Sanders or a Jim Furyk, two players with legendarily awkward-looking golf swings, facing a panel similar to those who adjudicate at figure skating events, where the assessment might go something like this: “OK, well done Jim, you scored 9.5 for technical merit and congratulations on a great total to finish top of the leader board. But you only get two for artistic impression I’m afraid.”

Finally, and after the adjudicators have tallied their opinions, it is the pretty-swinging Danny Divot, who was fifth on the leader board, who is declared the tournament’s winner.

In professional golf, no national coach or club manager will frustrate a player’s right to tee it up based on opinion or politics. Even one of the golf Majors, the Masters, which is an invitational tournament, exercises these rights of invitation only in terms of all past winners and the selection of several amateur golfers who are included in the field each year.

For the rest, every player knows exactly what will be required to play in the tournament. Apart from the past champions’ lifetime invites, the criteria, through which any player will receive a coveted invitation, are all performance-related.

In brief, amateurs will have to have won a current major amateur event such as the US or British Amateur Championships. The pros, when the cut-off date for the invites is reached, will have had to have qualified based on performance by, for example, having won another Major within a prescribed period, a tournament on the PGA Tour, or by finishing top of their tour’s order of merit, or by being in the top 50 on the world rankings.

No players get to tee up in any professional golf tournament unless they have earned the right to be there.

So when you next watch professional golf, remember that the players you are following are there purely on merit. Now if only we could just get some of our politicians, the International Olympic Committee and Fifa’s representatives to follow this model.

A closing thought on meritocracies when it comes to our own inefficient and corrupt public service. What a joy it would be to see officials paid only for delivery and not just for pitching up at their workplace. Imagine a licensing department or passport office where an employees pay is based on each document delivered to the applicants.

Our president, Cyril Ramaphosa, is a golfer, so he need look no further than golf for the perfect solution. He should encourage his cabinet, every public servant and state-enterprise employee to watch golf and see a real meritocracy at work.

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