Jordan Spieth’s Rio withdrawal may be fatal for golf’s Olympic future

PGA: WGC - Bridgestone Invitational - Third Round

It is difficult to deviate from the notion that Jordan Spieth has inflicted a fatal blow on golf’s alliance with the Olympic Games.

Perhaps the delayed announcement over whether or not Spieth would travel to Rio had instilled fresh hope. How the 22-year-old Texan crushed that with a short phone call.

Making the case towards the International Olympic Committee that male golf should continue in the Games beyond the existing point of 2020 has never looked more difficult. That the IOC’s executive committee will make that decision next year causes golf an obvious problem, given the also-ran status to which the Rio medal quest has been reduced.

The Monday body language of International Golf Federation officials alone told a story of abject disappointment. Even those sceptical of the idea that golf should be classed as an Olympic sport in professional form would have felt an ounce of sympathy towards the people who successfully campaigned for its inclusion, subsequently seeing their plans trampled upon with incredible and surely unforeseen regularity.

Concern had initially been voiced by Adam Scott. By the time entries closed on Monday, a further 16 eligible male players had declared an unwillingness to participate in golf’s first Olympic involvement since 1904. Only one female has followed suit, raising the possibility – remote as it is – that only the women’s version of the sport could be retained.

That gender imbalance is something which will cause the IGF inevitable trouble. How on earth does the federation explain it? Rightly or otherwise, the widespread sense prevails that mega-wealthy male golfers regarded the Olympics as something they could readily do without.

Golfers, and Spieth is the latest, who cite the Zika virus as the motivation for their non-appearance in Brazil are in direct conflict with the IOC. In a statement, the Games organisers said: “The World Health Organisation – which is the authority in this case – has once again reaffirmed its advice that there should be no general restrictions on travel to Rio de Janeiro because of the Zika virus and have issued advice on a number of sensible measures that all visitors should take.

“It should be noted that the Olympic Games Rio 2016 will take place during the winter months of August and September, when the drier, cooler climate significantly reduces the presence of mosquitos and therefore the risk of mosquito-borne infection.”

There is one important caveat; the building of the Olympic golf course on swampland, rendering it altogether different from a velodrome or swimming pool.

Thomas Bach, the IOC president, reaffirmed his governing body’s view. “These are individual decisions taken by the players that stand in contrast to the WHO recommendations,” he said. “The IOC, of course, has to respect the decisions of the athletes. But it is obvious that this does not help the attractiveness of the golf competition. You can see that these are individual decisions just by looking at Martin Kaymer, who recently said that the Olympic golf tournament is a top priority for him this year.”

Kaymer, the world No47, is suddenly among a group of flag bearers for golf, given the positions as taken by Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Dustin Johnson.

Speaking to the Guardian, the IGF’s president, Peter Dawson, had admitted that the stance of these individuals “doesn’t help” with regards Olympic golf. “We have had greenkeepers working night and day out there for six months. They are still standing,” said Dawson, in a barely veiled swipe towards what he regards as overplayed Zika concerns. “I am concerned that it [the Zika threat] has been blown out of proportion.” Be that as it may, the worries exist and should be respected. There were others, such as security, which the PGA Tour in particularly sought to douse by handing dossiers to players in recent weeks.

Spieth, in proving once again his single-mindedness, removed any suggestion that commercial pressure from Coca-Cola – one of his and the Games’s biggest sponsors – would result in an Olympic appearance. Rickie Fowler’s Rio commitment did not sway Spieth. Still, the two-time major winner clearly wrestled with this decision; hence the delay in making it.

The PGA Tour was amongst those anxious to have Spieth as part of the Olympic scene and made strong representations to that end.

Certain things do work in golf’s favour. For a start, television audiences will matter when future involvement is considered. Surely golf will compare well with the likes of shooting, archery and fencing. Tennis endured teething problems when earning Olympic status before staging a recovery. The freshness of golf and the Games also should not divert attention from leading individuals in other sports declaring themselves unavailable for this summer.

“Golf and rugby are not being singled out in any way for review in 2017,” Dawson said. “It’s the whole program of Olympic sports, not just golf or the other new ones.”

The president is adamant he has no regrets over the “great opportunity” his sport claimed via Olympic involvement. Yet even Dawson exhibits exasperation; the IGF’s toughest task will come when the IOC presses for answers which could not be adequately provided to Spieth and his ilk.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Ewan Murray at Royal Troon, for The Guardian on Monday 11th July 2016 19.08 Europe/London

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010