Olympic Golf: Blame it on Rio

June 22, 2016

Update: Rory McIlroy announced his withdrawal from Olympic consideration on June 22.

As I write this, five players have withdrawn from Olympic consideration: Australia’s Adam Scott and Marc Leishman, South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel, and Fiji’s Vijay Singh. They’ll likely be joined by more dropouts as golf returns to the Olympics after a 112-year absence. The problem? In my opinion, it’s not a scheduling issue, as several players have said. You can blame it all on Rio and its unlucky organizers.

The problems plaguing golf at the 2016 Olympics are many. First and foremost, there’s the host. Rio de Janeiro wouldn’t have been my top choice for the sport’s first Olympic appearance since 1904. Had golf returned in 2012 to the London games, we could have watched players compete in England, where historic, world-class courses abound. Or, conversely, the International Olympic Committee could have held out for Tokyo four years from now. Japan is rabid for golf and is home to plenty of worthy tracks.

Instead, we’re headed to an untested venue in a country with well-documented public-health issues that’s also embroiled in political turmoil. And there’s the growing shadow cast by the Zika virus, which can cause birth defects. If I were in my 20s or 30s and starting a family (or thinking about it), I would never jeopardize the health of my loved ones.

One of many problems with Olympic golf in Rio is the format. There’s simply nothing unique about it. Another problem facing golf at the Rio games: Organizers have triple-bogeyed the format. I was always under the impression that we would get a two-man team competition as well as an individual competition, and that each country would be limited to its top two players. But there’s nothing unique about the chosen format: 60 men and 60 women will play four rounds of stroke play, with the top three players claiming the medals. Imagine the excitement a mixed-team format could have created. A player may think twice about skipping the trip to South America if he or she had to consider a playing partner.

None of the world’s top players attended the one-day test event held at the Olympic course in March. Together, these issues form a perfect storm of circumstances that may result in the worst possible scenario in which to reintroduce the game on a grand, global stage. And that’s a true shame.

Still, despite these many challenges, I believe Olympic golf has the potential to be a growth catalyst in areas of the world where exposure to the game is limited, such as South America and much of Asia. Whether those places have the infrastructure and economic power necessary for golf to thrive, I don’t know. One wonders if Rio’s controversial course (environmentalists tried to halt its development) will even survive long after all the medals are awarded. I’m not convinced it will, but I hope I’m wrong. And I applaud the players who will make the trip this August. It’s a great honor to represent your country. And while I don’t blame those who choose to sit this one out, I do hope they’ll tune in. It may inspire them to dream about 2020 and Tokyo.