Golf hasn’t been an Olympic sport since the third modern games in St. Louis in 1904 when 46-year old Canadian George S. Lyon won gold in what proved to be the last Olympic appearance for the sport for 112 years. It makes its return this year in Rio de Janiero as a 72-hole stroke-play event for 60 men and 60 women. But does anybody really care?
Four-time major champion Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland is now one of many top players in the world to pass on the Olympics citing concern for the Zika virus, a mosquito-borne virus linked to brain defects in newborn babies. A number of top golfing stars, including major winners Adam Scott, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel had already pulled out of the games for scheduling and family reasons. McIlroy’s decision is just one more blow to golf’s Olympic movement. While slated to be in the 2020 games, golf’s future as an Olympic sport will be determined well before Tokyo with participation and quality of the field weighing heavily on that decision.
Tennis faced similar issues when it went back on the Olympic program in 1988 in Seoul. Boris Becker and Mats Wilander withdrew with injury, while John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova declined to play. The Zika virus is clearly one issue in Rio but then again in golf’s 112 year absence there really hasn’t been any sort of clamoring among the game’s top players to return to the quadrennial event. Most in the sport seemed perfectly happy with the status quo of four majors, a hand-full of top-tier events, an annual team competition, and then a smattering of run-of-the-mill events throughout the calendar year. And does golf really need the Olympics and do the Olympics really need golf?
When the Australian star Adam Scott announced earlier this year that he wouldn’t be competing in Rio, citing travel concerns and time away from family, golf’s power brokers were hoping he’d be a lone wolf, opting out of an event most athletes dream about. Others feared that he might be opening the floodgates.
For starters the men’s Olympic competition August 11-14 caps-off a hectic summer schedule of three major championships from the U.S. Open (June 16-19) through the PGA Championship (July 28-31), and a World Golf Championship at Firestone. The British Open ends on July 17 at Royal Troon in Scotland. The PGA Championship begins 11 days later at Baltusrol in New Jersey. Nearly half of the men’s current field for the Olympics would then have one week off before the FedEx Cup playoffs begin in New York on August 25. Three straight weeks of playoff events would be followed by one week off, the Tour Championship, and then straight to Minnesota and the Ryder Cup for U.S. and European players.
While there are a half-dozen reasons why a top player would pass on Rio, the Zika virus among them, one key reason could simply be apathy. Golfers don’t grow up dreaming of winning a gold medal. They aren’t swimmers or track stars and the Olympics are not the ultimate prize for a golfer. A green jacket, U.S. Open, Claret Jug, Wanamaker Trophy – those are the real prizes for which golfers play. No kid anywhere in the golfing world has ever been on a putting green pretending to be George S. Lyon imagining that he was standing over a 15-footer to win a gold medal. Well, maybe not. After all, Canada is the defending champion. Go Canada, Go.