RIO DE JANEIRO – When it was announced in 2009 that golf was to be included in the Olympic program for the first time in more than 100 years, the decision was heralded for bringing one of the world’s biggest sports into the Olympic tent.
But with many of the world’s top golfers, including Hideki Matsuyama, subsequently refusing to play due to fears ranging from the Zika virus to security, golf’s inauspicious return at Rio 2016 has sparked questions not only about the legitimacy of the event in Rio, but also of the sport’s Olympic future.
Matsuyama, Japan’s top PGA-ranked pro and the world No. 18, said in early July that his insect bite allergies and worries about Zika meant he was withdrawing from the field.
“It might be in the best interests (for Japanese golf) to play at the Olympics, but I don’t know if it’s worth all the risk,” he said, giving fuel to critics’ claims that golf does not fit into the supposed Olympic ideal of national before individual glory, claims inflamed further when the Rio 2016 chief Carlos Nuzman said the lack of prize money was the real reason so many players were skipping the Olympics.
Unfortunately for event organizers and those like the International Golf Federation, who are invested in the sport being a success at the Olympics, Matsuyama is just one of the more minor name players to pull out.
Joining him in forgoing the chance at Olympic gold are Australia’s respective current and former world No. 1s Jason Day and Adam Scott, the United States’ Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth, as well as Rory McIlroy, a four-time major winner from Northern Ireland.
McIlroy went as far as saying he will not even keep tabs on the Rio 2016 golf competition, preferring to watch “stuff that matters” like track and field, swimming and diving.
It is not all bad news, however, as recent British Open winner and PGA Championship top-10 finisher Henrik Stenson, of Sweden, said he’s in.
“I’m not afraid of mosquitoes. I’m more afraid of bears,” he told reporters earlier in the year.
“I’ve been excited to go and get a feel of the Olympic atmosphere for a long time,” Stenson said. “I want to try and play well and do myself and my country proud by hopefully bringing home a medal.”
Given major winners like Stenson, the United States’ Bubba Watson and England’s Justin Rose, have said they are playing, all is not lost, but their efforts on the course will have to overshadow the feeling that golf does not belong if Tokyo 2020 is not to be the last time it is seen at the Olympics.
With Matsuyama declining a Rio place, Japan will be represented in the men’s competition by Yuta Ikeda and Shingo Katayama, who sit in 29th and 30th respectively on the IGF’s Olympic ranking list.
Both will be long shots for a medal, leaving Japan’s podium hopes with its female representatives — Harukyo Nomura and Shiho Oyama.
Nomura, 23, a two-time winner on the LPGA tour in 2016, goes to Rio ranked 15th on the IGF’s Olympic list, and sixth in earnings on the year. Her father is Japanese and mother South Korean, but she opted to take up Japanese citizenship in 2010 upon turning pro.
Japan head coach Shigeki Maruyama said in July that he was looking forward to working with the two Japanese women.
“Nomura’s in form and I hope she keeps going . ..(but) Oyama might be the most insecure at the moment,” he said.
The golf event is to be held over 72 holes in the individual stroke play format at a purpose-built course within the Reserva de Marapendi in the Barra da Tijuca cluster of venues.
The course, which itself has come under fire for its location in a protected part of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest and for what critics say was a lack of concern paid to the environmental impact of its construction, is par 71 and stretches 5711-meters.
It will see 60 male and 60 female players play over four days with the men’s winner crowned on 14 August and the women’s on 20 August.