THE world’s top golfers are abandoning the Olympic Games at a rate of knots. Last week, world number one Jason Day and Ireland’s Shane Lowry added their names to the already considerable list of pro’s that will not be competing in Brazil this August.
Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott, Branden Grace, Louis Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel, Mark Leishman, Graeme McDowell, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Vijay Singh have all confirmed they will not be participating in Rio, while speculation is also rife that Jordan Spieth is considering his position before the July deadline.
The decision by the world’s best golfers to snub the Olympics has generated much discussion and debate. Here at home, boxers Katie Taylor and Darren O’Neill have expressed their disgust at the prospect of any athlete turning down an opportunity to represent their country at an Olympic Games.
Personally, though, I can sympathise with the golfers’ decision.
Competing at the Olympic Games has never been an aspiration for professional golfers. None of the players that will qualify for Rio next month grew up dreaming about winning an Olympic gold medal for the simple reason that the Olympics was never on their agenda.
The pinnacle of most pro golfer’s careers is winning any one of the four major tournaments on the calendar season; the Open Championship, the Masters, the US Open or the USPGA. Golf is only a recent addition to the Olympic programme and it is viewed by professional golfers as something akin to a novelty; a chance to compete in an event that has stumbled onto the golfing calendar. A bonus, almost.
Not on a genda
If McIlroy never managed to win an Olympic gold medal during his professional career, I am quite certain that he wouldn’t give it a second thought. But if he ended his playing days without a Masters title at Augusta? It would haunt him to his death bed.
One also has to consider the politics of McIlroy’s position. When he originally declared for Ireland, after deliberating for a considerable time, there were begrudgers in the South who readily dismissed his commitment to the tricolour. McIlroy has previously declared that he feels more British than Irish, but that position is completely understandable given his background and upbringing.
Most of McIlroy’s friends are British; he went to a British school, learning British history and he associates himself as being part of the UK. It is completely natural that he would have more affinity with the Union Jack than the Tricolour. Nevertheless, McIlroy chose to represent Ireland at the Olympics before deciding to back out over fears that the Zika virus might impede his ability to start a family over the next few months.
The reaction to McIlroy’s decision to withdraw was at odds with that of Shane Lowry. Both men pulled out of the Olympics for the same reason, yet Lowry’s explanation was greeted with almost universal approval here, while McIlroy was pilloried for being anti-Irish and taking the soft option.
Why is it ok for Shane Lowry to pull out of Rio because of the Zika virus, but when McIlroy does it, he is anti-Irish and taking the easy way out? Never mind that McIlroy has done more for the promotion and development of the Irish Open in recent years than anyone before him. Or that he donated his entire €600,000 purse for winning this year’s tournament to three Irish charities.
When it comes to bashing the former world number one, some people in this country seem to revel in it for the sake of it. McIlroy has never been anything other than a polite, engaging, honest young man. He has never shied away from speaking to the media and I have found him to be nothing but courteous and informative. Yet, still, some people in the Republic queue up to bash him. It is bizarre.
For any parent reading this, I would ask them to consider what they would do in McIlroy or Lowry’s position. Would they readily subject themselves to playing in a tournament if they knew there was a chance, however slim, of doing harm to their unborn child? Both Lowry and McIlroy consulted with their doctors before deciding to pull out. And even though the chance of contracting the Zika virus is a lowly five percent risk, they opted to come down on the side of caution. Where is the harm in that?
As it stands, the future of golf as an Olympic event is in jeopardy. Already, Brazil has splashed massive resources into creating a brand new golf course at the expense of local residents and the surrounding environment. And if the top names in the sport continue to withdraw, the event will be little more than a sideshow. More is the pity.
The Olympics represents a wonderful opportunity to showcase the sport of golf to the world and to grow the game to a global audience. Now, with the top names out and with the overall standard of play set to drop as a result, one can only feel that this chance will be severely diminished.
But for Lowry and McIlroy, there should be no vilification of their decision. However much Ireland would have benefitted from their appearance, some things in life are more important than sport. The future health of their families takes precedence over any prospect of an Olympic gold medal. And that is the way it should be.