(ATR) Debate over golf’s Olympic credentials are overshadowing the build-up to The Open – but some players are relishing the prospect of competing in Rio.
Rory McIlroy’s controversial comments suggesting golf is irrelevant at the Olympics have got people talking about Rio 2016 for all the wrong reasons on the eve of the 145th Open Championship at Royal Troon in Scotland.
Jordan Spieth, who withdrew from the Rio Games on Monday citing "health concerns", admitted that scrutiny over his late decision has become a distraction as he tries to focus on winning a third Major title.
To date, 20 men golfers including the world’s top four – McIlroy, Spieth, Jason Day and Dustin Johnson – have pulled out playing the first Olympic golf tournament in more than a century, many citing Zika concerns. Questions have been posed as to whether the sport should have been accepted for Olympic inclusion in 2009 in the first place.
But other pros in the 60-strong field are looking forward to teeing up in Rio and becoming Olympians.
On Wednesday, British golfer and former U.S. Open champion Justin Rose said he was honored to be one of four members of Great Britain’s Olympic golf team.
"If I fast forward 10 years, I’d like my career to read ‘Justin Rose, multiple major champion and Olympic gold medalist," said Rose at a Team GB press conference on Wednesday.
"I’m excited about it – I’m treating it as a once-in-the-life opportunity," Rose said, noting he plans to take part in the opening ceremony, attend events and will stay a few days in the Olympic Village.
Commenting on the numerous withdrawals blamed on Zika and lack of interest from pros such as McIlroy and Adam Scott, Rose said: "The bad publicity is unfortunate obviously. I think the Zika risk is one of things that we’re going to look back at and, hopefully, it’s a non-issue."
Golfers Fears Misplaced
2016 Masters champion Danny Willett, 28, who is recently married, has one child and is planning more. He joins Rose representing Team GB in Brazil.
"It’s been a tough decision – it’s a tricky one, but I have the opportunity to be an Olympian and that’s pretty cool," Willett said. "I was pretty sure I wanted to go all along, unless the threat would have gotten worse," he said referring to Zika.
Willett pointed out that while it has been mostly male golfers avoiding Rio due to Zika, unlike most other sports there is potentially a greater risk.
"You look at the golf course, it’s very close to the water down in old marshland," Willett said. "The risks are probably higher for us than other sports where we could be outside for five-hour rounds with warm-ups."
But Willett suggested his fellow golfers’ fears were misplaced.
"You’ve got more chance of getting malaria in South Africa then you have of getting Zika in Rio. If there’s Olympic Games down in Johannesburg, would guys pull out because of Malaria?" he said.
Thongchai Jaidee of Thailand, winner of the recent Scottish Open at age 46, said he is excited to represent his country.
"It’s very difficult to qualify for the Olympics in any sport, so it’s absolutely perfect to represent Thailand and it will be amazing for me," Jaidee told Around the Rings after a practice round at Troon.
"Olympics are big for our country and golf is loved there," said Jaidee, who along with Kiradech Aphibarnrat, 26, will compete for Thailand in the men’s tournament.
South Korean Byeong Hun An, 24, will become an Olympian in Rio, just as his parents were at the 1988 Seoul Games, both of whom won medals in table tennis.
"It would mean a lot to follow in my parents footsteps and I’m looking forward to the challenge of competing in Rio," An told ATR. "The Olympic Games is a special event and I'm delighted to be able to represent my country as golf returns this year."
Sweden’s Henrik Stenson, 40, weighed in on the Olympic debate, while noting he is looking forward to bringing his family to Rio.
"You always enjoy playing against the best, so of course you would have liked to see as many as possible at the Games in Rio, but we’ve all got different views on Zika and scheduling, and we’re all free to decide on our schedules," Stenson said.
"I’m going to be there for the opening ceremony and I’ll be in the village for at least part of the stay," Stenson said of his 10-day trip to Rio. "I’ve got wife and family coming as well."
Golf’s Olympic Hopes
Golf Channel analyst and former PGA Tour pro Brandel Chamblee believes some of those who have withdrawn may regret their decisions.
"I have a feeling that once the Olympics are underway, the enormity of that accomplishment and the novelty of what those players who have chosen to withdraw for legitimate excuses certainly – I think they'll feel like they're missing out," he said.
International Golf Federation president Peter Dawson emphasizes that while it is disappointing that many marquee names will not be in Rio, Olympic golf can still flourish.
"I think it’s worth remembering that the withdrawals that we’ve experienced primarily come from four countries: Australia, Ireland, South Africa and the United States," Dawson noted.
"They’re certainly strong golf countries, but they are a very small minority of the 143 countries of the IGF. So we’re going to have more than 40 nations competing in Rio. I’d like to get that into context."
Around the Rings onsite coverage of the 145th Open Championship at Royal Troon is sponsored exclusively by EventScotland, working to make Scotland the Perfect Stage for Events.
Reported by Brian Pinelli at Royal Troon in Ayrshire
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