Raising the bogey of Zika

Many who follow golf closely feel that though it was good for the sport to return to the Olympics after 112 years, the leading players, all multi-millionaires, were not too excited about spending a week in Rio playing for medals, instead of money.

"After speaking with those closest to me, I've come to realise that my health and my family's health comes before anything else," Rory MclLroy said.   -  reuters

After 112 years, when golf returns to the Olympic fold in Rio, there will be more of despair than delight for those who backed the move in 2009. The withdrawal of those who form the creamy layer of world golf has hit the re-introduced event like no other.

Led by World No. 1 Jason Day, six players from the top-10 bracket have decided to stay away from the Games, citing the dreaded Zika virus or their schedule as the reason behind their decision.

Many who follow golf closely feel that though it was good for the sport to return to the Olympics after 112 years, the leading players, all multi-millionaires, were not too excited about spending a week in Rio playing for medals, instead of money.

Therefore, it is believed that the Zika virus epidemic came as a handy reason for the world’s top four players — Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy — to follow their heart.

Day was categorical in stating that his reason for not going to Rio was Zika (a mosquito-borne virus), which has been linked to severe birth defects. He said while the risk was slight, it was not the one he was willing to take, because he planned to have more children.

Day said, “The reason for my decision is my concerns about the possible transmission of the Zika virus and the potential risks that it may present to my wife’s future pregnancies and to future members of our family.

“My wife Ellie and I have been blessed with two wonderful and healthy children and our plan is to have more. While it has always been a major goal to compete in the Olympics on behalf of my country, playing golf cannot take precedence over the safety of our family.”

Johnson too was categorical in saying, “This was not an easy decision for me. But my concerns about the Zika virus cannot be ignored.”

Johnson and his fiancée, Paulina Gretzky, have an 18-month-old son Tatums. And they, too, plan to have more children.

“I feel it would be irresponsible to put myself, her or our family at risk. I believe I am making the right decision for me and most importantly, my family. While I am sure some will be critical of my decision, my hope is that most will understand and support it.”

McIlroy, too, made himself unavailable for selection to the Irish Olympic squad and said he was planning to start a family with fiancée Erica Stoll.

“After speaking with those closest to me, I’ve come to realise that my health and my family’s health comes before anything else. Even though the risk of infection from the Zika virus is considered low, it is a risk nonetheless and a risk I am unwilling to take. I trust the Irish people will understand my decision.”

Spieth, who started the year as the World No. 1, said, “This was harder than trying to decide what university to go to. Whether to turn professional and leave school? This was something I very much struggled with. I bounced back and forth with it, and ultimately a decision had to be made, so I made it.”

From the provisional list of 60 qualifiers, around 20 — including eight from the top-20 list —withdrew before the cut-off date of July 11.

The president of the International Golf Foundation and the former head of R & A, Peter Dawson, minced no words in saying, “It’s certainly disappointing that we’ve had so many withdrawals on the men’s side.”

The man who was instrumental in getting golf back into the Olympic fold, said, “I think it’s worth remembering the tennis experience when they came back into the Olympics in 1988. They had quite a lot of difficulty attracting the top players to play, and just look at it now in the intervening years; tennis has become a very significant Olympic sport and very well supported by the top players. I think golf will take a little bit of time as well. But I don’t think it will take that long.”

Notwithstanding Dawson’s optimism, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is obviously very cut up. President Thomas Bach confirmed that the failure of the world’s top four players to be in Rio has damaged golf’s chances of being retained in the 2020 Olympics, which will be hosted by Tokyo. At present, the IOC has made golf part of the Olympics for the 2016 and 2020 editions.

“For the evaluations, one of the main categories is, of course, the question of participation by the best players,” said Bach. “We have to respect the individual decisions, even if they are going contrary to the World Health Organisation recommendations.

“On the other hand, we are aware of discussion in the golf community that there are obviously very different reasons for not going to Rio, not related to Zika.”

What Bach was hinting at, is the scheduling of the premier golf events quite close to the Olympics. Within three weeks of the Open, the Olympic golf takes place. In another two weeks, the PGA Championship is scheduled. Interestingly, in the Olympic week, PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic, where Spieth is the reigning champion, takes place. Soon thereafter, the Wyndham Championship will be followed by the FedEx Cup playoffs.

Significantly, for the leading American and European players, there will be the prestigious and much-awaited Ryder Cup.

On the packed schedule ahead, defending Open winner Zach Johnson put it appropriately, “Personally, I don’t like it — the fact that it (Olympics) jumbles everything together. It’s really hard to navigate when you have major after major after major and very little time off... And no offence to the Olympics, but I’d rather be on the Ryder Cup team personally.”

The Golfers who snubbed Olympics: (The number in parenthesis denotes World ranking, as on July 11, 2016, the cut-off date for Olympic qualification for the 60-player field)

Jason Day (1; The Open Champion in 2015)

Dustin Johnson (2; The U.S. Open champion in 2016)

Jordan Spieth (3; The Masters and the U.S. Open champion in 2015)

Rory McIlroy (4; former U.S. Open and The Open champion, and twice winner on PGA Championship)

Adam Scott (8; The Masters champion in 2013)

Branden Grace (10; once winner on PGA Tour)

Louis Oosthuizen (14; The Open champion in 2010)

Hideki Matsuyama (17; twice winner on PGA Tour)

Charl Schwartzel (21; The Masters champion in 2011)

Shane Lowry (27; The U.S. Open runner-up in 2016)

Kim Kyung-tae (41; winner of 13 titles on the Japan Tour)

Marc Leishman (45; The Open runner-up in 2015)

Hideto Tanihara (69; winner of 13 titles on the Japan Tour)

Graeme McDowell (74; The U.S. Open champion in 2010)

Victor Dubuisson (78; twice winner on the European Tour)

Matt Jones (84; once winner on the PGA Tour)

Vijay Singh (116; The Masters champion in 2000 and PGA Championship winner in 1998 and 2004).