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Olympic withdrawals may affect future of golf

July 6, 2016

Top-ranked Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott lead a host of men's golf stars who have withdrawn from the Rio Olympics, an exodus that could jeopardize the sport's return to the Games lineup after an 112-year absence.

The mosquito-borne Zika virus, which can cause birth defects and severe illness, is mentioned by many -- including Australia's Day, Northern Ireland's McIlroy and Japan's 17th-ranked Hideki Matsuyama -- among a nightmare combination of Rio woes ahead of next month's Olympics and Monday's deadline to finalize rosters.

"With what's going on with Rio and the Zika virus, there's a small chance it could happen and I just can't put my family through that, especially with the future children we're looking at having," Day said. "I need to make sure the priority is family first over golf and the Olympics."

Of the 15 highest-ranked players who would be eligible to play in Rio, seven have said they will not go -- Day, McIlroy, Scott, Matsuyama, South Africans Branden Grace and Louis Oosthuizen and Irishman Shane Lowry. South Africa's Charl Schwartzel, a possible fill-in at 22nd, also said no.

"I cannot be 100 percent sure about my safety, and my team's safety, from the Zika virus," Matsuyama said. "I cannot put myself or my team member's health at risk."

McIlroy noted the dream of Olympic gold that drives swimmers, track and field stars and others to chase ultimate glory every four years is not a part of golf, where the longing for major trophies becomes real four times a year.

"Most other athletes dream their whole lives of winning an Olympic gold and we haven't," McIlroy said. "We dream of winning (British Open) Claret Jugs and (Masters) green jackets. I've said to people I have four Olympic Games a year. That's my pinnacle."

Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell, Fiji's Vijay Singh and Aussie Marc Leishman have also said no to Rio, prompting some to say Olympic gold will have a watered-down value.

"There's not going to be an asterisk," Day said. "You win a tournament based on the competition you play and the competition is going to be great regardless."

McIlroy told the Golf Channel that golfers being Olympians "does an injustice to the people who have trained for four years for this event. Golfers are going to go down there for a week, pitch up and enjoy the whole thing. (Other) people have had to sell their cars and their homes just to afford to train to compete at the Olympics."

Add Rio's shootouts and rising crime rate, political turmoil, transport woes, huge recession, sewage-polluted water, human body parts found near the beach volleyball venue and police struggling to obtain basics like toilet paper and fuel and it's no wonder US talk show host Stephen Colbert suggested the Olympic slogan: "Brazil: Come for the sport, stay 'cause you're dead."

"There are quite a few different factors that would turn somebody away," said world number two Jordan Spieth, who is undecided about Rio. "There is other bacteria stuff and then security threats. Transportation is a big issue."

The International Olympic Committee's vote next year on whether to keep golf beyond the 2020 Tokyo Games is far from secure.

"Will it impact? Yeah, I think it will," Spieth said of the withdrawals. "There have already been enough players that I think it'll definitely have an impact.

"Pending some crazy, great finish or whatever, I think there's a significantly lower likelihood now of it staying in the Olympics than there was six months ago."

American Bubba Watson, a two-time major winner, says chances for support beyond 2020 aren't that bad.

"The (IOC) has to look at this and go, 'Don't penalize golf because of a weird situation,'" Watson said.

Up to four top-15 players can compete in Brazil for one nation and Americans Spieth, Watson, Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler are all in the top seven.

"Do I feel an added burden? All four of the Americans that are in right now do now that guys have dropped out," Spieth said. "But this is a personal safety decision, which is going to outweigh any kind of pressure we would feel."

Day and McIlroy say they would be ready to play were 2020 host Tokyo this year's site.

"If the Olympics were in most other cities, you wouldn't find as many people not wanting to go," McIlroy said. "There's another Games in Tokyo in 2020 and I'm more than happy to wait until then to get that Olympic experience."

In the meantime, 14-time major champion Tiger Woods would like to see a tougher field with the top 50 eligible.

"It would be better if we had a more top-heavy field," Woods said. "I think the Olympics really deserve that."

Scott, who would rather see amateurs in the Olympics, says officials need to learn from this year's mess.

"I just don't think enough of the best players are there," Scott said. "It just doesn't seem to make sense to me that we have a fairly weak field."

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