So much for golf’s triumphant return to the Olympics.
Any hope of Rio hosting a men’s tournament that anyone beyond the hardcore aficionado will give a flip about took a knockout blow Monday when the last of the Big Four, Jordan Spieth, delivered his regrets to the powers that run international golf.
“It’s certainly disappointing,” said Peter Dawson, head of a world governing body that was essentially created to get golf back in the Olympics for the first time since 1904. “There is no doubt that the number of withdrawals hasn’t shed golf in the best light.”
What an understatement.
Now that Spieth has followed the lead of Jason Day, Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, Rio will be putting on a men’s tournament roughly equivalent to the John Deere Classic, missing the top four-ranked players in the world and seven of the leading 15.
Come to think of it, the John Deere might have an edge on the Olympics, since that second-tier PGA Tour event will be played the same week as the Olympics. Spieth, the defending champion, suddenly has an opening on his schedule. If he shows up in the Quad Cities, it would only add to golf’s gold medal fiasco.
How did we get to this point?
There’s plenty of blame to go around, from skittish golfers who latched on to the threat of the Zika to justify their decisions to tone-deaf executives who made a mess of this year’s schedule, cramming too many important tournaments into too short of a time period.
Let’s start with the players.
While it’s hard to blame anyone for citing health concerns as a reason to skip the Olympics, and the dangers of Zika are undeniable to those who want to have children, the mosquito-borne virus is clearly much less of a threat during the Brazilian winter.
Also, as Dawson wryly noted in what appeared to be an underhanded shot at those who backed out, “we haven’t lost a greenskeeper yet” at the new course constructed in Rio.
Asked to expand on that assessment, the vice president of the International Golf Federation, Ty Votaw, confirmed that no one associated with the course — from hundreds of construction workers to those now charged with keeping it in top condition — has been diagnosed with Zika.
“Personally, I think there’s been something of an over-reaction to the Zika situation,” Dawson said.
He’s got a point, especially when one considers that all the top female players will be in Rio, some of them surely planning to start families of their own someday.
Then again, it’s easy to see why there’s such a divide between the sexes. The men never seemed to be all that thrilled about adding the Olympics to their already crowded schedules. The women embraced the chance to elevate their sport beyond its niche status.
When the threat of Zika came along, it provided a convenient excuse for those who may not have wanted to go to the Olympics in the first place.
“I don’t know if golf has its place in the Olympics,” said Zach Johnson, the reigning British Open champion who didn’t qualify for one of the four U.S. spots in Rio. “I didn’t dream of winning a gold medal in golf as a kid. It wasn’t an option.”
Johnson makes the point — and it’s a good one — that the Olympics should be reserved for sports such as swimming and gymnastics and wrestling, the ones that don’t get a lot of attention outside of their every-four-years moment in the spotlight.
“No offense to the Olympics,” Johnson said, “but I’d rather be on the Ryder Cup team.”
A more legitimate complaint — and maybe this is what some players were stewing on all along — was the ludicrous schedule imposed on them this year, beginning with this week’s British Open at Royal Troon.
The PGA Championship is two weeks later, followed by the Olympics two weeks after that, with lesser tournaments crammed in along the way. Two weeks after Rio, the FedEx Cup playoff begins, with four high-stakes tournaments in five weeks, culminating with the Tour Championship.
And, oh yeah, that’s followed the very next week by the Ryder Cup.
“Adjustments were made to the schedule for this year,” Votaw insisted. “People can debate as to how effectual those changes have been in terms of putting this event in the middle of the schedule.”
Actually, no debate is necessary.
The PGA Championship should have been moved to a more accommodating spot — later in the year, at the very least, or more radically to a date ahead of the Masters, which wouldn’t have been a complete break with tradition. In 1971, the PGA was shifted to February to escape the oppressive summer heat in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.
That would have required a warm-weather site — Baltusrol, this year’s host in New Jersey, clearly wouldn’t have worked — but golf had seven years to get its house in order before Rio.
In that regard, it failed miserably.
But let’s not feel sorry for a group of pampered players who fly around the world on private jets, their every whim catered to, their bank accounts brimming with millions of dollars. They could’ve squeezed in an extra week of golf if they really wanted to.
“They play most weeks of the year not at major championships,” Dawson said. “I just don’t think it actually matters at this point whether they regard (the Olympics) as much as a major or not, frankly. It doesn’t stop them going to play” other tournaments.
No matter what, golf is heading to Rio as an afterthought, sure to face more questions about why it’s even there than who’s winning gold, silver and bronze.
That’s an issue that will get a good, hard look next year from the International Olympic Committee, which will decide the sports that stay on the program beyond the 2020 Tokyo Games.
That means golf is assured of one more chance.
But after this fiasco, the IOC should already be looking for a sport that really wants to be there in 2024.
Ballroom dancing, anyone?