McIlroy to lead gold rush
Paul McGinley sees the Olympics as a glorious opportunity to bring golf to a wider audience
Serious strains are evident in the build-up to golf's return to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in August, after a lapse of 102 years. But Irish captain Paul McGinley is confident that this country's likely quartet, spearheaded by Rory McIlroy, is set fair for battle.
It will come as no surprise that McGinley is applying the same sort of thoroughness to this latest assignment as was evident in his leadership of the victorious European Ryder Cup team at Gleneagles 18 months ago. Which is just as well, judging by the apparent apathy elsewhere.
South Africa's Charl Schwartzel has become the fourth leading player to declare himself unavailable, following Adam Scott (Australia), Vijay Singh (Fiji) and Louis Oosthuizen (South Africa). No such movement has yet become evident among women contenders, however, despite understandable concerns over the Zika virus.
As things stand, Ireland will be represented by McIlroy and Shane Lowry (33rd in the world rankings) in the men's event, while Leona Maguire and Stephanie Meadow will challenge for the women's medals.
The format of the upcoming assignment has provoked ill-judged sniping in the men's game. For instance, America's Matt Kuchar criticised the 72-hole stroke-play format as being "not very creative." He went on: "They should have used the old World Cup format. We could have had alternate shot, best ball, even mixed teams."
Similar views have come from other leading players, indicating further withdrawals may be likely down the line. Mind you, it is difficult to buy the well-worn excuse of scheduling pressures from the four absentees to date, given that unlike their brethren from Europe and the US, none is involved in the Ryder Cup. Which suggests that their August focus is centred on the FedEx Cup with its $10m jackpot.
"As a realist and in the knowledge that I'm not going to change people's views, I'm still sad that some players have decided not to go," said McGinley yesterday. "But I'm very confident Rory will play, because he has told me so. There wasn't the hint of indecision when we talked recently, prior to the Masters.
"Rory acknowledges the Olympics as the biggest sporting event in the world and he wants to be part of it. He wants to represent Ireland and he wants to represent the sport of golf. It will be great to be involved in the Olympics and it will be a tremendous achievement if we come away with any colour of a medal."
The field for Rio will comprise 60 men and 60 women in a set-up comparable to the staging of the men's and women's US Opens on successive weeks, in that order, at Pinehurst No2 in 2014. Both events have Monday, July 11 as their qualifying date, three days before the commencement of the Open Championship at Royal Troon.
For men, a country with four players or more in the top 15 in the Official World Rankings may enter four competitors. As it happens, this applies only to the US which, on current rankings, would have Jordan Spieth (2), Bubba Watson (4), Rickie Fowler (5) and Dustin Johnson (8) competing. Above that, nations are capped at two, and they could be down to one, depending on ranking.
If the teams were to be finalised this morning, there would be no place for Patrick Reed, the current 12th-ranked player. But the field would include Adilson da Silva, ranked 335, from the host country, Brazil. Several other countries, including Netherlands, Italy and Zimbabwe, would also have only one representative.
Geographically, the women's scene couldn't be more different, with the US among the rank and file compared with the dominant South Koreans, who have currently no fewer than seven players in the world's top 15. Which means they will have four representatives in Rio while the US will have two.
Female concerns about the Zika virus prompted current world No 2 Inbee Park to question if the Olympics "are being held in the right place."
In anticipation of such questions from Maguire and Meadow, McGinley had discussions with officials of the International Golf Federation, the event's organisers. "They are telling Paul that while the risk at that time of year is very low, they are in constant communication with the Olympic medical team and, rest assured, that no risks will be taken," said Meadow.
McGinley has also visited the spanking new course, designed by American architect Gil Hanse, in the face of stiff competition. "It's pretty much what I expected - wind-swept with a linksy feel to it," he said. "Not unlike what we've seen in Melbourne or Kiawah Island. It's the sort of terrain a lot of players will be familiar with.
"There's a lot of red tape involved with the Olympics, much more than with any other sporting event. A new drugs policy is coming into place, which hasn't been experienced before. It's important that we're on the right side of everything that's done in terms of filling the forms and the accessibility of all the players, should they ever be tested.
"The world of professional sport is largely dictated by money. We all know that. I'm simply trying to stress how important I think it is to represent your country and your sport at the Olympics, especially at a time when the numbers coming into golf have been stagnating, or even diminishing.
"Matt Kuchar's a bright guy and I'm sure his remarks are well intentioned. From an administrative point of view, however, the reality is that golf hasn't been in the Olympics for more than 100 years and it took a big effort to get it back on the agenda.
"So it's crucial that we get through this comeback effort satisfactorily, with a tried and trusted format everybody is familiar with. When that's done and dusted, you can then contemplate a little bit of variation in the future, but only after you've got it back on the agenda and on a solid footing.
"But if more players decide to pull out, we cannot look to further golf in the Olympics as a foregone conclusion. The International Olympic Committee might question whether it should continue to be an Olympic sport if the top players don't want to play.
"On the other hand, if all goes well in Rio, I'll be very surprised if the organisers are not more creative down the line. Either way, we have to look on this as a glorious opportunity to grow the game."
In this context, McGinley pointed to huge audiences of several hundred million viewers on television, many from places where golf hasn't been seen before. "It may be for only half an hour for the week," he said. "Whatever the exposure, it's important that we put on a show worthy of the occasion, with our superstars performing as they can."
All of this was said in the knowledge that he doesn't have the sort of authoritative platform for the Olympics that he had as Ryder Cup captain. He is leading Ireland's Olympic effort in golf, essentially through a desire to give something back to the game and the pride he has always taken in representing his country.
In this context, the idea of supporting various sports through a country's national Olympic body has obvious appeal for governments in the disbursement of funds. And the various player posturing looks rather shallow when set against the inescapable benefit to golf from national funding through it being an Olympic sport.
Back in the autumn of 2000, as commissioner of the LPGA Tour, America's Ty Votaw enthused: "What greater world event is there than the Olympics? Having my players walk into an Olympic stadium with the Korean team or the Canadian or Australian teams, would be the thrill of a lifetime." As vice-president of the IGF, Votaw is currently engaged in making that a reality.
And a gifted Irishman with considerable credibility in world golf is happy to lend a hand.
Sunday Indo Sport