Of all the Olympic sports in Rio, golf, back in the mix for the first time since 1904, was starting from a position of perceived weakness because the top four players in the world decided to give it a miss with the risk of catching the Zika virus as the main reason.
The IOC wanted the biggest names but instead Rory McIlroy delivered the most damning verdict on Olympic golf by saying that not only was he not playing in it, he probably wouldn’t bother watching it as he was only really interested in the ‘stuff that matters’.
He was the first to say the risk of catching the Zika bug was too great a risk. Jason Day, Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth also snubbed the Games for various reasons.
The fact that Justin Rose both embraced the tournament and won gold after an exciting battle with Henrik Stenson without a Zika carrying mosquito in sight, makes McIlroy and co look pretty silly and gives the game’s image a boost.
But although McIlroy was out of order with his comments it was a clear indication of a top golfer’s priorities and the Olympics isn’t one of them.
And as much as Rose will go home as proud as punch that he has an Olympic gold medal and has represented his country in what is supposed to be sport’s greatest show I wonder where in his list of achievements it will sit in years to come when the four players who would have represented his biggest challenge weren’t there.
It’s a bit like winning the 100 metres without having to take on Usain Bolt. A gold medal is an awesome achievement but for professional golfers it does not and never will represent the pinnacle of their sport which remains the majors and for me the Rio tournament just didn’t come close to the competitive intensity of a major.
For other sports like swimmers, runners, high jumpers, long jumpers, fencers, weightlifters and many more an Olympics medal is their only focus as they train hard for four years. It is their benchmark of excellence and you can see how much it means to them. Not so for the majority of pro golfers.
The withdrawals of the world’s top four players did not do golf’s image much of a favour and the Zika virus was undoubtedly no more than a convenient excuse but the Olympics clearly does not have the pulling power to attract every elite player and until that happens it lacks total credibility.
One of the main reasons for allowing a sport in the Olympics is to grow that particular activity world wide. Did the fact that Rose, Stenson, Patrick Reed, Bubba Watson, Sergio Garcia and Danny Willett, amongst others, competed on the Gil Hanse designed golf course in front of mediocre crowds, although there were more watching yesterday, help the sport become more appealing to youngsters? Why would it?
It’s no different to watching them play in the Masters, the Open, the PGA Championship or the US Open apart from the fact that it does not carry the gravitas or appeal of those majors.
The only non-major golf tournament that truly inspires youngters to take up the sport is the Ryder Cup because of the passion and camaraderie of what has become a fiercely competitive team battle between Europe and America.
Golf does have a place in the Olympics but it should be for amateurs only. A young up and coming golfer – and there are plenty of them with the talent to become pros – would cherish the opportunity to win a gold medeal because at that stage of their career it would be their biggest prize and would showcase their potential on the world stage.
That would also inspire youngsters. The other possibility that might work would be to follow the example of football where only Under- 23s are allowed to play which rules out most of the biggest stars. I understand the need to have big names in the Olympics but it should create its own heroes rather than play the celebrity game with those who have already made it.
Rose’s gold does not change my opinion that if Olympic golf remains a tournament for top professionals, some of whom clearly couldn’t care less about becoming Olympians, it devalues what the Games are about – the awesome achievements of those sportsmen and women for whom a gold medal is their ultimate accolade.
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