For many athletes, competing in the Olympics is the pinnacle of their sport. A gold medal in swimming or fencing or bobsledding is the ultimate, often lifetime goal.
In golf, which is back in the Olympics for the first time since way back in 1904, things are a little more complicated.
Men’s golf already has four majors — plus this is a Ryder Cup year, pitting the United States against Europe in their ancient biennial grudge match. And women’s golf has five majors.
Pro golfers can be, in a word, spoiled. So while some are regarding a chance to try to win gold, silver or bronze in Rio de Janeiro a bucket-list achievement, others have offered up “Sorry, I have to paint the cat”-worthy excuses.
The subject intersected neatly with the playing of this week’s Zurich Classic of New Orleans. Wednesday marked 100 days until the opening ceremonies in Rio, with three of the world’s top 10 players — No. 1 Jason Day, No. 5 Rickie Fowler and No. 10 Justin Rose — in the field at TPC Louisiana.
All three reaffirmed their commitment to play for their countries in August. Sixty men’s players will compete in a traditional four-round tournament, followed by 60 women’s players in the same format. Two players per country can go, though a maximum of four players from a country can play if they’re ranked in the world top 15.
“I would love the chance to be able to go to down to Rio,” said Fowler, one of four Americans currently qualified, along with Jordan Spieth, Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson. Former University High golfer Patrick Reed is at this point the odd man out despite his No. 12 world ranking because of the four-player limit.
“I can’t wait to go to Rio,” said Rose, who will represent Great Britain for England. “The Olympics is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We’re going there and taking the full week down at the opening ceremonies just to feel what it’s like to be a member of Team GB.”
“I’m looking forward to the challenge of trying to win a medal,” said Day, who’s from Australia. “For me, it would really be a fantastic honor.”
Some prominent golfers don’t share Day’s fervor, namely countryman Adam Scott. The world’s No. 7 player always was tepid toward the Games and recently said the Olympics don’t fit into his schedule. This despite the fact Olympic golf is the same week the PGA Tour’s Bridgestone Invitational is played, a tournament that Scott won in 2011.
Scott’s decision drew stinging criticism from Australian Olympic legend Dawn Fraser.
“Very sorry to hear that Adam Scott cannot fit it into his schedule to play for Australia at the Olympics,” wrote Fraser, a four-time swimming gold medalist. “Well done, Adam. Great to put your country on hold so that you can fulfill your own schedule. How much money do you want in life? Not showing much for your country.”
Day naturally was diplomatic on the subject, not wanting to slam his mate Scott for his choice.
“You can’t really get angry at golfers for trying to say they’re going to pull out of the Olympics, because it’s never been on our radar,” Day said.
Fiji’s Vijay Singh, the 2004 Zurich Classic champion back here in this week’s field, said no thanks to the Olympics, citing the Zika virus among his concerns. This even though his decision leaves his tiny but picturesque island nation with no eligible golfers to take his place.
Also saying no to Rio: South Africa’s top two golfers, major champions Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel, drawing not stinging but grandfatherly admonishment from South African legend Gary Player.
“I am sad and disappointed that several top players have withdrawn from the Olympic games in Rio,” Player wrote. “Not just South Africans. I would have given anything to play in the Olympics.”
Golfers can choose not to feel this way because the golfers who are eligible to go are pampered multimillionaires. But they should set aside their concerns and scheduling issues for the sake of representing their countries.
That said, history doesn’t help — the fact that golf has been on the Olympic sidelines for 112 years. Neither does the format — where’s the team gold medal to instill a greater sense of national pride?
Hopefully golf and the Olympics can get it right by 2020 in Tokyo. Japan is a golf-mad country and first-world in every respect, unlike Brazil.
Hopefully four years from now, all of the world’s top golfers will have had a chance to realize what an honor they’re missing by not competing in the Olympics.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.