Somewhere in Florida, Rory McIlroy stands outside of his plush mansion to reflect on the Olympic golf tournament at Rio 2016 he decided to snub due to “concerns” over the Zika virus, swatting away a mosquito as he does so.
The Northern Irishman considers whether he made the right call to miss the sport’s return to the program after a 112-year absence due to the fear factor generated in the lead-up to the Games surrounding the disease.
He debates whether he would go back and change his decision given the chance but a realization then comes into his head – the evidence suggests he and the other top stars who withdrew due to the virus got it wrong. Badly wrong.
All along, Rio 2016 and local officials promised there wouldn’t be any cases, citing the fact that the winter season in Brazil would mean the population of mosquitoes would be low and there was thus very minimal risk.
In some ways, you could understand their decision to protect their wives and girlfriends from the “dangers” of Zika, but it is evident now that they were just using it as a smokescreen, covering up for the apathy they felt towards an Olympic golf that did not offer any prize money.
At least Australia’s Adam Scott, who can lay claim to being the first staunch opponent of Olympic golf among the playing contingent, was honest when he confirmed he would not be taking part in the tournament because it did not fit into his schedule. At the time, his stance was heavily criticized and he was vilified by many.
His name disappeared from view before Rio 2016, however, as attention centred on the likes of McIlroy, Australia’s Jason Day and American duo Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth. Scott’s beliefs were originally considered the most damaging until the now-infamous quartet, the top four ranked players in the world, went one better.
The choice of McIlroy, Johnson, Day and Spieth – winner of six of the last 11 major titles between them – would have been more understandable had leading names in other sports also stayed away because of Zika. It would have been more understandable had the Olympics been held at the height of summer, when the amount of mosquitoes buzzing around in the air is significantly greater.
As it happened, cyclist Tejay van Garderen was the only other big name to cite the disease when pulling out. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course, but the evidence was there before the Olympics got underway.
Little sympathy can, therefore, be given to those who missed out on what proved to be a successful Olympic golf event.
In fairness to McIlroy, he did perform a u-turn on his original “I will only watch stuff that matters” comments, admitting he was “glad to have been proven wrong” by how well the first competition in the sport at the Games for over a century had gone down with the locals, the players and the Olympic world alike.
It is little wonder the Northern Irishman felt that way. While the sport’s Rio 2016 presence can not necessarily be described as a roaring success, the action we saw in the men’s and women’s events ended fears that the relationship between golf and the Olympics would be a short one.
As the withdrawals from the event continued on a daily basis, the concern for the Olympic future of the sport drastically increased. One senior International Olympic Committee (IOC) member, New Zealand’s Barry Maister, even claimed golf should not be included on the program if it could not deliver its best athletes.
McIlroy himself said he feared the game’s love-affair with the Olympics would not last beyond Tokyo 2020 – ironically his own decision not to go was what sparked some of the fiercest criticism – yet Rio 2016 may provide the platform for the sport to become a prominent part of the program.
Yes, the crowds were disappointing to begin with, but this was an issue which was far from specific to golf; after all, vast swathes of empty seats were visible at a number of venues during the Games.
The men’s event provided a perfect example of the drama which competitions in the sport often have in abundance. Those who turned out to watch the latter stages of the final round saw a titanic tussle between two of the world’s best – Britain’s Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson of Sweden – both of whom had spoken out favorably of golf’s Olympic status.
The two went toe-to-toe for the majority of their last 18 holes, with the pendulum of momentum swinging drastically from one player to the next, before Rose eventually saw off the Swedish challenge to finish at the summit of the podium. The game could not have asked for a better advert.
In the women’s tournament, which concluded the day before the Closing Ceremony, the story behind the eventual winner, Inbee Park, was a true tale of triumph amid adversity. Struggling with an injury in the months leading up to Rio 2016, the South Korean swept aside the field with consummate ease on her way to deservedly etching herself into the history books as the first women’s Olympic golf champion for 116 years.
The International Golf Federation, who themselves were initially tentative when pursuing a place at the Games all those years ago, were not the only ones rubbing their hands with glee once the last putt rolled into the 18th hole. The IOC, who were all too aware of the lingering doubts swirling around golf pre-Rio2016, would have been delighted to have seen television figures published after the Games.
According to Sports Media Watch, an average of 8.8 million viewers in United States watched the final hour-and-a-half of the men’s event when it was broadcast on NBC and The Golf Channel, marking the second highest figures for any 90 minutes of golf this year, narrowly trailing behind only The Masters, considered golf’s holy grail.
More broadcasting means more income. Golf has always been a money-spinner and a revenue-generator – something the IOC will be eager to cash in on.
It is for this reason, among others, that it appears nigh on impossible that the IOC will cut golf’s Olympic tenure post Tokyo 2020 when the issue is debated early next year. The event in the Japanese capital will surely be a more appealing prospect than the tournament in Rio and thus is more likely to attract the game’s top echelon, while the sport’s growing popularity there is another green tick in the positives column.
Add the potential for an Olympic tournament in golf-mad America in 2024 if Los Angeles are awarded the Games and there’s every reason to believe the sport’s place is secure, certainly more than it appeared to be in the lead-up to Rio 2016, where McIlRoy et al’s fear of a bite from a Zika-ridden mosquito made us all question whether it had any future at all.
By Liam Morgan
Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz