Big money golfers won't play for glory

3:33 pm on 14 July 2016

Opinion - It's ironic that the world's best male golfers have declined the chance to go to the Rio de Janeiro Olympics next month.

Rory McIlroy watches his tee shot on number 6 during the World Golf Championships - Dell Match Play Round 7 finals at the Austin Country Club Austin, Texas.

Rory McIlroy during the World Golf Championships in March. McIlroy won't be competing at Rio. Photo: Photosport

In 2009, when golf was added to the Olympic programme, it was the "Tiger Woods factor" that swayed the doubters into giving golf a chance on the Olympic stage.

Now Woods has drifted off the golf scene - his current world ranking is 615 - and many other leading men aren't interested in going.

They have tended to use the Zika virus threat as an excuse for bypassing Rio, but I'm not convinced.

So far only one notable women's golfer has withdrawn - South African Lee-Ann Pace - though current medical understanding is that the virus, primarily transmitted by mosquito, has more serious consequences for women.

On the men's side Vijay Singh, Charl Schwartzel, Marc Leishman, Rory McIlroy, Branden Grace, Shane Lowry, Jason Day, Hideki Matsuyama, Camilo Villegas and Dustin Johnson have cited concerns about the virus as their reason for pulling out.

In addition, Adam Scott, Louis Oosthuizen, New Zealand's Tim Wilkinson, Graeme McDowell, Brendon de Jonge and Miguel Angel Jimenez have simply said they don't want to go.

Six of the top 10 men won't be attending, meaning American Bubba Watson - ranked fifth in the world - will be the top-ranked player in Rio.

The American golfer Bubba Watson wins 2014 US Masters.

American golfer Bubba Watson, who won the 2014 US Masters, will be the highest ranked male golfer at Rio. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

The women's tournament will be brilliant, with Lydia Ko attempting to win the first Olympic golf gold medal handed out since the games in Paris in 1900.

Ko will do battle with Brooke Henderson, Inbee Park, Lexi Thompson, Stacy Lewis, Ariya Jutanugarn and all the other stars.

Lydia Ko and Brooke Henderson

Both New Zealander Lydia Ko, left, and the Canadian Brooke Henderson will be competing at the Rio Olympics. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

The mass of defections doesn't reflect well on the male golfers. They earn massive amounts of money and seem reluctant to play just for glory.

Furthermore, as many have pointed out, golf already has its Majors, the litmus test of greatness for the top players. They are unwilling to shuffle their calendars to take in the Olympics.

Golf's experience mirrors what tennis went through after it was reintroduced to the Olympics in 1988.

Nearly all the leading women played and singles gold medallists have included Jennifer Capriati, Lindsay Davenport, Venus and Serena Williams and Justine Henin. Other medals have gone to Steffi Graf, Maria Sharapova, Monica Seles and Amelie Mauresmo. That's a who's who of women's tennis over the past couple of decades.

On the men's side, the likes of Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Mats Wilander, Pat Cash, Yannick Noah, Boris Becker and Pete Sampras either never played at the Olympics, or turned in sub-standard singles performances.

As late as 2004, the singles medallists were Nicolas Massu, Mardy Fish and Fernando Gonzalez, none exactly hall of fame contenders.

McEnroe said he was not interested in competing at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, a stance he later said he regretted. Andre Agassi did not play in Seoul either, but won an Olympic gold in 1996 and said it was among his most cherished titles.

Roger Federer has always supported the Olympics - Rio will be his fifth games - and more recently Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have clearly enjoyed their Olympic experiences.

Serena Williams has said she would save her Olympic medals first if her house caught fire.

Serena and Venus Williams of USA on the podium with their gold medals for the Womens Doubles Tennis at the Sydney Olympics 2000.

Serena and Venus Williams of USA on the podium with their gold medals for the Womens Doubles Tennis at the Sydney Olympics 2000. Photo: Photosport

Tennis is now fully on board the Olympic train. No tennis player has withdrawn from the Olympics because of the Zika virus threat.

I don't mind golf being at the Olympics. The four-day event, confined to one course, fits the schedule well.

My feeling is that in a decade or so, golf will be in the same position as tennis is now.

It's to the credit of the women's golfers that they already understand what an opportunity they have been given to compete at the world's major sports festival.

A pity the men are so myopic.

* Joseph Romanos is a long-time sports journalist and broadcaster, and the author of nearly 50 books.

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