What happens when you take something nobody asked for, cross it with something nobody wanted and put it 5,000 miles and an entire hemisphere away? You get the Olympic golf tournament, an event plagued with problems months before its debut and now facing a mass withdrawal of players who are using a serious disease as a convenient scapegoat for their exodus.
So far top players such as Jason Day, Adam Scott, Rory McIlroy, Shane Lowry, Branden Grace, Vijay Singh, Marc Leishman, Graeme McDowell, Charl Schwartzel, and Louis Oosthuizen have pulled out of the Games, with more sure to come. A majority have used the threat of Zika as the reason.
Forget that Zika hasn't yet infected any of the 17,000 volunteers and athletes already in Rio. Ignore the fact that no other Olympic event – including women's golf – has seen a single Zika-based withdrawal. It's meaningless. To men's golfers, this is apparently a mosquito-borne disease that only has eyes for dudes hitting driver and carried by animals attracted to the sense of fear of a two-putt.
Still, even if Zika isn't at crisis levels (or anything close to them) right now, it's a real-deal prolem. But it almost certainly has nothing to do with why the world's top golfers are pulling out of Rio. It's merely the excuse.
The thinking is simple (and brilliant). No one can criticize Jason Day for wanting to take care of that lovely family of his, so he throws out the word “Zika” and it's like a forcefield that protects him from all scolding and guilt he'd receive about being an entitled athlete who doesn't appreciate all that sport has given him, not to mention being a turncoat who refuses to represent his country. There's been plenty of that type of talk already, even from the gods of the sport.
All of that is nonsense though. No one should begrudge Day, or any other player, the right to skip the Olympics if they don't want to be there. That's their call. No golfer is under any obligation to suddenly care about the Games because Tim Finchem decided that golfers should care about the them.
The only thing I don't like about it is the disingenuousness. If you don't want to play own up to it. Don't make Zika a phony bogeyman. But now that it is, the more important question is why did one even have to exist? Why don't golfers want to play in the Olympics? Let us count the reasons:
1. The schedule
Here's what the schedule for a top American or European golfer would look like this summer:
U.S. Open (June 16-19)
British Open (July 14-17)
PGA Championship (July 28-31)
Olympics (August 11-14)
FedEx Cup, four tournaments (August 25 – September 25)
Ryder Cup (September 30 – October 2)
That's three majors in six weeks and four in eight, if you count the Olympics. That's Pennsylvania to Scotland to New Jersey to Rio to the East Coast to Minnesota, all in about three-and-a-half months. And those are only the big events! Any player's schedule is going to have at least two or three other tournaments too.
So a golfer has to ask himself: What's most important? It's hard to imagine anyone saying anything but the three majors, with the Americans and Euros putting the Ryder Cup up top too. And, sure, the FedEx Cup has its problems, but playing for $10 million is a whole lot different than playing for pride and a medal you've never particularly wanted.
What golf should have done is moved the PGA Championship to the week before Memorial Day and the Players to three weeks after the Masters. That would have kept the schedule feasible.
Not that it would have mattered. Because while this schedule is more jetsetting than most would like, we're talking about golf. We in here talking about golf. Tennis players go from the French Open to Wimbledon to the Olympics – where they play five, six or seven matches at each – and you don't hear a peep. And tennis is a physically and mentally demanding sport that requires so much more athleticism, stamina and effort than golf, a sport where players walk a course four times a week and don't even carry their own bags. Suck it up, fellas.
2. It's harder to medal
The fastest runner is going to win the 100 meters. Katie Ledecky will win the 800-meter freestyle by so much she could conduct an interview by the time the silver medalist touches the wall. The best gymnast will take the all-around because gymnastics is more crooked than a Chicago election. In most sports, the best athlete headed into Rio is going to win a gold, silver or bronze. There will be plenty of upsets, surprises and disappointments, sure, but in the big sports, the cream usually rises. Golf is a completely different animal.
While there's no chance of Michael Phelps coming in 30th in the 200 butterfly, there's a very legitimate chance of Rory McIlroy doing so. He's missed a cut this year. So has Jordan Spieth. Golf is weird like that. If you win 10% of the time, you're a slam-dunk Hall of Famer.
So the best golfer is going to win, but only the best golfer that week. In that case, is it worth it for the big dogs to travel to Rio and hope that their games come with them?
Tennis used to be the golf of the Olympics. It was a B-level tournament that wasn't close to being considered a fifth major. But two things changed that – the emergence of Roger Federer as a global superstar who happened to take the Olympics very seriously and the event being played at Wimbledon in 2012. Now, a gold medal is something Novak Djokovic will crave to legitimize his dominance. And because he's dominant in a sport that had a 10-year stretch where three men won almost every Grand Slam, he has every expectation that he can do so.
3. It's not important.
Golfers grew up wanting to put on a green jacket or hold up a Claret Jug. They never stood on a putting green imagining that they were trying to birdie the 72nd hole to win a gold medal. The sport was never at the Olympics, so why would a golfer miss something that never existed? (The best-case scenario for golf is that it has a memorable tournament this year, stays around for 2020 and then the Games come to Los Angeles in 2024 where the tournament can be staged at a historic course, such as Riviera or even someplace a couple hundred miles away, like Pebble Beach. Tennis showed it can take time to legitimize the sport and make the top players want gold.) Again, no player was ever gung-ho, or anything resembling that, about their sport being added to the programme. The only time “golf” and “the Olympics” should have been in the same sentence is when Lindsay Vonn was showing up at Tiger's tournaments.
4. The tournament stinks
Of the 60 players currently in the field, I've heard of 29. That's less than half the field! And I'm a golf fan! I'm no die hard, but for perspective I'm probably in the 95th percentile of golf fandom. Maybe higher. Despite that, of the 29 players whose names I recognize, I could pick maybe 14 out of a random lineup. (I know who you are Kiradech Aphibarnrat, but I don't know who you are, you know?) That means three out of every four players in a single-athlete Olympic event are mysteries. And if golf fans don't know who these guys are, regular Olympic fans won't either. Apathy isn't a good look. And if one of those unknowns takes the lead at the Olympics, golf might as well be taekwondo. It needs stars, but sometimes you get Lucas Glover winning the U.S. Open. (And with the field restricted so much – meaning there can't be 15 Americans – there's a higher likelihood of this happening.)
And then there's the fact that the golfing suits, in their infinite wisdom, decided to make the Games a regular ol' stroke play event, just like we see every week. How fun! A new, supposedly huge event that we're supposed to care about that looks no different than the Frys.com Open. There were so many fun ways to go with this, like having a team tournament using alternate shot, better ball and/or (this would have been far too awesome to even consider) two-man scrambles. This was a moment that called for some ingenuity. None was applied.
5. No one else cares either
Did golfers drop out of Rio because they knew no one would care about it or does no one care about it now that top players are fleeing? Let's put it this way: Do you think fans are going to be talking about who won the 2016 Olympics a decade from now? A year? A month? I doubt it. Players must believe it. This is a glorified exhibition.
The good news is that golfers might not have to look for a lame reason to bail on the 2020 Tokyo games. (Fear of Godzilla, perhaps?) After the Rio debacle, golf might not be back. Sorry, Kiradech Aphibarnrat.