Rio de Janeiro: Brazilian Adilson da Silva ended golf’s 112-year absence from the Olympics with his opening tee shot on Thursday, but the sport faces a fight to remain due to absent stars.
The first Olympic golf shot since Canada’s George Lyon won at St. Louis in 1904 landed in the fairway on a revamped Rio sand-mine where a crocodile lurks as a few hundred spectators watched the historic resumption of play.
Reigning British Open champion Henrik Stenson of Sweden and 2016 Masters champion Danny Willett of England were among six major winners in the field of 60 seeking a gold medal and berths in every 2017 major championship.
But the world’s four top players—Australia’s Jason Day, Americans Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth and Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy—were among about 20 top stars who skipped Rio.
Health concerns over mosquito-borne Zika, a virus linked to severe illness and birth defects, were named by many as a reason for saying no.
But many sceptics say Zika was a convenient excuse for golfers worn down by playing two majors in three weeks, especially with the US PGA Tour’s season-ending play-offs for a $10 million top prize starting days after Rio ends, unchanged despite the Games crunch.
Next year, the International Olympic Committee will evaluate its offerings in every sport category to determine inclusion beyond 2020 in Tokyo. And IOC president Thomas Bach says top stars competing would be among key factors considered.
“We see now in the discussion in the golf community, there are obviously very different reasons for not going to Rio, not related to Zika," Bach said.
“We are also following with interest the discussion in the golf community how they themselves are considering these decisions and what judgements they are making."
Major tournaments and the US PGA and European tours might need to juggle events for more space around the Olympics to ensure players are better rested, a feat even trickier as the Olympics fall in Ryder Cup years.
“It was always going to be hard to find two weeks in the middle of the summer," Stenson said. “That’s one thing they might have to look at, if you should have tournaments up against it, whether someone has to give in some way to ensure you have the right lead up to the Olympics in terms of preparations and not coming rushed off back-to-back majors."
Ireland’s Padraig Harrington, who went off in the second group as the first major winner in history to play in the Olympics, said the atmosphere was relaxed and joyful for players.
“I sense as well that among the players at home—being pretty quiet on the social media—some would like to be here, and there’s no doubt they are missing out," Harrington said.
“The athletes who turned down coming here this time, some of them might not get the opportunity again."
Germany’s Martin Kaymer, a two-time major winner, called this “the greatest week of my life" and marvelled at the passion of German gymnast Andreas Toba to compete while in pain from a leg injury.
“The passion you see from these athletes... compared to them, we’re so weak in terms of our attitudes sometimes," Kaymer said.
“They put all of their heart in there. And then some players they don’t come here. And you think, ‘How can you not want to come here?’"