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Whatever the reason, avoiding Rio Olympics spreads like a virus in golf

Jordan Spieth of the US hits his tee shot off the 6th during a practice round ahead of the British Open Golf Championship at the Royal Troon Golf Club in Troon, Scotland, Tuesday, July 12, 2016. The Open starts Thursday
Jordan Spieth of the US hits his tee shot off the 6th during a practice round ahead of the British Open Golf Championship at the Royal Troon Golf Club in Troon, Scotland, Tuesday, July 12, 2016. The Open starts Thursday AP

There is a golf tournament to be played here at Royal Troon this week, the 145th Open Championship with all of its attendant history, charm and atmosphere, but getting to it requires more than navigating the tiny roads that lead into this seaside town on Scotland’s Ayrshire coast.

Golf’s return to the Olympics, which every industry leader is intent on saying is intended to grow the game, has temporarily hijacked the pre-Open storyline.

When it was announced Monday that Jordan Spieth, the face of American golf, will join Jason Day, Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy – the top four players in the world rankings – in bypassing a trip to Rio next month, it rumbled like one last crack of thunder.

It is not just about the Zika virus or security concerns or a crowded summer schedule with major championships squeezed together like passengers on a rush-hour subway car. It’s about all those things and probably a few more.

In many corners of the world and in many sports, they wait a lifetime for a shot at the Olympics. In the case of the top male golfers, they’ll wait until Tokyo 2020.

“There is no doubt that the number of withdrawals hasn’t shed golf in the best light, and we have to accept that,” said Peter Dawson, president of the International Golf Federation, who began working on golf’s inclusion in the Summer Games 15 years ago.

For Dawson, the former chief executive of the R&A (golf’s ruling body outside the United States) for more than a decade, his disappointment is understandable. But the Olympics will never be the biggest event for the sport of golf in the way that the Summer Games are for gymnastics or swimming. The Olympics would not even be among the top five for golf.

Major championships define golf at the highest level, and that won’t change. The Olympics can and should be special, but given the IOC’s irresponsible decision to put the games in Rio with all of its rampant problems, it’s not surprising many top players are taking a pass.

Someone will win the gold medal in Rio, but with only 18 of the top 60 players in the world rankings competing, golf’s return to the games will be less than it might have been.

“I would say the golf is skipping Rio rather than skipping the Olympics. That’s the way I would frame it this particular time around. I just think it’s unfortunate,” said Justin Rose, who will represent England in Rio.

Interestingly, only one woman (South African Lee Anne-Pace) who has qualified for golf in the Summer Games has decided to bypass Rio. That has led to criticism of the men who aren’t going, with critics suggesting the biggest stars don’t want to be bothered with a trip to Rio given the millions of dollars they’re already making.

Several players have cited the Zika virus as a reason for staying home, saying they are planning to have children in the near future and don’t want to take the risk. Others prefer to remain fresh for the majors (there are three in a seven-week period) and the approaching FedEx Cup playoffs.

Spieth, who can be as brilliant in explaining himself as he can be on the course, said health concerns finalized his decision. He did not mention Zika and made a point of that in his news conference Tuesday.

“I didn’t cite that. Please don’t do that for me,” Spieth told a questioner.

Spieth called the decision, which he made Sunday, the most difficult of his life. He brushed off suggestions he felt pressure from the outside to play in Rio. It was his decision based on his own analysis and feelings.

“Why was it so hard? Because I’m a huge believer in Olympic golf,” Spieth said. “I’m a huge believer in playing for your country, showing I absolutely look forward to Summer and Winter Olympics. It’s the most exciting sporting event for me to watch on TV and to have a chance to be a part of it is something I definitely look forward to trying to do.

“This year I just had to try and weigh a risk that doesn’t present itself every year, and just at the time that I had to make the decision, I just felt this was the right move for me. Not everybody’s going to understand. Nobody’s going to understand what it’s like in my shoes.

“A lot of golfers are trying to decide for themselves. Mine came down to just a very personal decision that, again, I don’t expect anybody to understand, but trust that I believe I’m making the right decision for myself for my future and for those around me.”

Focus on Royal Troon

This isn’t how Spieth wanted to begin his Open Championship week, but this year is different. He still feels the sting of falling one stroke short of a playoff last year at St. Andrews when his Grand Slam quest was still alive.

His attention now is on Royal Troon, which longtime member Colin Montgomerie once described as “more difficult than great.” It’s a grinding test with the first seven holes playing downwind beside the Firth of Clyde before turning back into the wind coming home. In the middle is the 123-yard, par-3 eighth hole, nicknamed the Postage Stamp for its tiny putting surface.

It’s a rugged test on a soft day, Troon’s character similar to the gray-blue skies above. The weather forecast calls for breezy conditions with a solid chance of showers every day with temperatures around 60 degrees. It’s called summer in Scotland.

“This is a very, very special tournament; everyone knows that,” Spieth said.

That’s why the golf world has come here. It’s 5,870 miles from Rio.

Ron Green Jr. is senior writer for Global Golf Post magazine (www.globalgolfpost.com) and a contributor to The Charlotte Observer. He can be reached at rongreenjr@gmail.com.

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