Defections by some of the world’s top golfers from this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro have been primarily because of Zika.
On the surface, it would appear that the issue is the virus and the venue, not the low priority placed on Olympic participation as the sport returns to the Games for the first time since 1904.
But as world No. 1 Jason Day and Shane Lowry joined the growing ranks of withdrawals Tuesday, the PGA Tour’s and LPGA Tour’s hopes of expanding the game globally through the Olympics could be in for a fight.
Participation is set through 2020 in Tokyo. But in 2017, a vote will be held regarding golf’s status after that. If criticism this week from International Olympic Committee member Barry Maister of New Zealand is any indication, the negativity may gather steam before that vote.
Especially if Americans follow nine notable names who have already decided to stay home.
“I think it is appalling,” Maister told radio station Newstalk ZB, per the Irish Times. “I don’t like it and I don’t think the sport should be allowed to continue in the Games under that scenario. Just getting in with your name, and then putting up some second- or third-rate players is so far from the Olympic ideal or the expectation of the Olympic movement.”
Maister has numbers to bolster his argument.
Australia’s Day, Charl Schwartzel, Marc Leishman and Adam Scott are skipping Rio, along with Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Lowry, South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen and Fiji’s Vijay Singh. The Irish defections leave no golfer in the top 100 in the World Golf Rankings, with Padraig Harrington (159) and Seamus Power (283) leading the candidates. The top-ranked Aussies remaining are Scott Hend (75) and Marcus Fraser (81).
American Bubba Watson said Tuesday before the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational at Akron’s Firestone Country Club that he’s “100 percent in” for Rio. But he and wife Angie can’t have children and have already adopted two.
Watson called the circumstances a “random, weird situation” and hopes the IOC doesn’t penalize golf for it.
But Jordan Spieth, the world’s second-ranked player, isn’t optimistic and wishes the vote could be delayed until after the 2020 Olympics.
“Pending some crazy, great finish or whatever, I think there’s a significantly lower likelihood now of it staying in the Olympics than there was six months ago,” Spieth said.
There are other problems in Rio besides Zika, which causes severe birth defects. Participants must also consider contaminated water, crime, an unstable government and a struggling economy.
The course designed for the Olympics is on the opposite side of a lagoon and has a massive rainwater-collecting canopy. Playing outdoors, golfers could be among the athletes most at risk, along with rowers.
Scott, Oosthuizen and Singh cited scheduling issues in their decisions, while McDowell’s wife is due to give birth to their second child a few weeks afterward.
Day has always put family above golf, skipping the 2012 British Open to be with newborn son Dash. He and wife Ellie also have a daughter, Lucy, and Day said Ellie wants two more children. Lowry got married in April and received “firm medical advice” not to go to Rio since they hope to start a family soon. McIlroy is engaged with plans to be married next year.
Similar circumstances could weigh heavily on Dustin Johnson, one of the top four Americans along with Spieth, Watson and Rickie Fowler. Johnson and fianceé Paulina Gretzky have one son, Tatum.
Spieth is wavering and not just because of Zika. He said he has meetings set up in the coming days to address issues such as security and transportation.
PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem will participate in Wednesday’s ambassador of golf ceremony for Davis Love III at Firestone and might find himself trying to convince Spieth, Fowler and Johnson to join Watson.
“If I feel like there’s any significant threat, then is it worth it? Probably not. I don’t train my whole life to play in the Olympics like some of those athletes,” Spieth said. “Do I think I’ll be there in four years’ time? I’m confident of that, yes, but also it would be cool to be part of the first one.”
Watson has already bought tickets to other Olympic events. His “money man” will replace his regular caddie, who has a conflict with his kids’ birthdays and shares Day’s family fears.
“If was planning on having more kids, I would not go,” Watson said. “But I’m not. So my decision was a lot easier. My wife [Angie] missed out on playing in the Olympic Canadian basketball team, made it, she was hurt. Every day she probably thinks about it. I don’t care if I finish dead last. At the end of the week or at the end of my career, I get to say I played in the Olympics, and I’d be one up on Jack Nicklaus.”
Spieth said the Americans feel an added burden because so many top players have dropped out. But when asked if he felt pressure to help the Olympics, Spieth qualified that.
“Let’s say golf in the Olympics. Let’s not put me on save the Olympics. The Olympics are going to be fine,” he said.
That’s obviously true. But if golf is unable to deliver a spectacular final round as Spieth suggested, the IOC has other deserving sports to consider, including baseball, softball, lacrosse, cricket, squash and mixed martial arts.
The pressure is on before the Olympic Games even begin. Should golf’s effort fail, it could disappear for another 112 years without a whimper from most players.
But at least Watson will be one up on Nicklaus.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.