Niyo: Golf barely matters at Rio Games

John Niyo, The Detroit News
Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland speaks at a press conference Tuesday at the British Open Golf Championships at the Royal Troon Golf Club in Troon, Scotland.

Rory McIlroy, one of the biggest names in golf, says he’ll probably watch this summer’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

But he has little interest in watching the golf in Rio. And apparently even less interest in playing there, as the sport returns to the Olympics after a 112-year absence without McIlroy. Or Jordan Spieth or Jason Day or Dustin Johnson — the trio that rounds out the top four in the world rankings.

In all, a dozen or more of golf’s most recognizable stars have declined invitations to play at the Olympics, many citing concerns about the outbreak of the Zika virus in Brazil. And while some of those bailing have professed their public remorse — Spieth called it “probably the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make in my life” — McIlroy’s honesty is rather refreshing.

“I’m very happy with the decision that I’ve made and I have no regrets about it,” he told reporters Tuesday at Royal Troon in Scotland, site of this week’s British Open. “I’ll probably watch the Olympics, but I’m not sure golf will be one of the events I watch.”

Asked what he will watch, McIlroy responded: “Probably the events like track and field, swimming, diving — the stuff that matters.”

The stuff that matters. Exactly. And when it comes to the Olympics, golf is hardly that. Because the Olympics don’t matter to pro golfers, at least not the ones the International Olympic Committee so coveted when they decided to give the sport a mulligan it didn’t really need, or want.

They don’t matter the way they do to the stars of so many other traditional Olympic sports, the ones where this quadrennial worldwide stage represents the pinnacle. Or at least something much more than a scheduling problem and an unpaid vacation.

Bailing on Brazil

From Johnson to Brendan de Jonge, they all had their reasons for bailing on Brazil. The latter, for instance, simply said he needs to keep his PGA Tour card and can’t afford to miss the John Deere Classic. Most of the others have cited nebulous “health concerns,” which are conveniently hard to argue no matter how disingenuous they may be.

Olympic golf chief Peter Dawson, president of the International Golf Federation, called all the Zika-related talk “something of an overreaction” Tuesday during his news conference at Royal Troon. He also said, rather sarcastically, “I take great heart, though, from the fact we haven’t lost a greenskeeper yet.”

“There is no doubt that the number of withdrawals hasn’t shed golf in the best light,” Dawson added. “Hasn’t shown golf in the best light, and we have to accept that.”

After initially voting down the idea, IOC officials added golf and rugby to the program seven years ago, bypassing sports like karate and ignoring the pressure to bring back softball, which was dropped along with baseball after the 2008 Beijing Games. (Baseball, softball, skateboarding, sports climbing and surfing all are expected to be added for the 2020 Tokyo Games, by the way.)

Dawson pointed to the interest in smaller countries pushing for golf’s inclusion in the Olympics. He also calls this step “the biggest grow-the-game opportunity we have, and I’m absolutely determined we’re going to make the most of it.” But it was also a money grab — most things the IOC does are, of course — and an awkward one, at that, fueled by visions of Tiger Woods in the Olympics.

Yet, with seven years lead time, golf’s leadership didn’t bother to figure out a better schedule than the one they saddled the players with this year. The men will have two major championships the next three weeks, followed by the Olympics two weeks later. Then comes the four-tournament FedEx Cup playoffs, and the Ryder Cup immediately after that.

As a result, while there will be 34 countries represented, seven of the world’s top 15 players — and at least 10 of the top 30 — won’t be in Rio.

“It’s certainly disappointing that we’ve had so many withdrawals on the men’s side,” Dawson said, “and wonderful that all of the women have been very supportive.”

Dream come true

Telling, too, I suppose, as the concerns routinely cited by the men dropping out don’t seem to carry the same weight with LPGA stars.

“I’m super excited,” said Lydia Ko, the Korean-born New Zealander who, at age 19, sits No. 1 in the world rankings. “Since they announced that golf would be in the Olympics, I said I want to get myself to Rio. That’s been a huge goal of mine. … And to even think that I could possibly be an Olympian is just a dream come true. …

“Just to have this opportunity to represent my country amongst those many other talented athletes is going to be a really cool thing. And I think this is a great step forward for the game of golf.”

Call it a half-step, then. Because the feeling obviously isn’t mutual — “I didn’t get into golf to try and grow the game,” McIlroy said — and it’s worth noting that golf only survived two Olympics the last time around before it was discarded.

There’s no guarantee this round will last even that long.

“To me, I don’t know if golf — obviously, it has its place in the Olympics now — but I don’t know if personally it needs to be in there, maybe is the right way to say it,” said Zach Johnson, a two-time major champ who’s a lock to make his fifth U.S. Ryder Cup team this fall.

“I mean, no offense to the Olympics, but I’d rather be on the Ryder Cup team, personally. That’s just as an athlete and as a golfer, as an American golfer. … I’d rather be on the Ryder Cup team and try to help our nation out there. But that’s just me.”

No, clearly, it’s not.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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Olympic roundup: Spieth latest golfer to withdraw

THEY'RE OUT

The golfers who have dropped out of the Rio Games and their world ranking at the time:

1 Jason Day, Australia

2 Dustin Johnson, United States

3 Jordan Spieth, United States

3 Rory McIlroy, Northern Ireland

8 Adam Scott, Australia

11 Branden Grace, South Africa

14 Louis Oosthuizen, South Africa

17 Hideki Matsuyama, Japan

23 Charl Schwartzel, South Africa

37 Marc Leishman, Australia

41 K.T. Kim, South Korea

69 Hideto Tanihara, Japan

73 Graeme McDowell, Northern Ireland

78 Victor Dubuisson, France

84 Matt Jones, Australia

166 Miguel Angel Jimenez, Spain

210 Vijay Singh, Fiji

306 Camilo Villegas, Colombia

319 Brendon de Jonge, Zimbabwe

320 Angelo Que, Philippines

340 Tim Wilkinson, New Zealand