Skip to main content

In 2009, Tiger Woods helped push golf over the Olympic finish line.

"It would be an honour for anyone who plays this game to be an Olympian," Woods told the International Olympic Committee.

There were doubts about whether or not top pros would interrupt their seasons to go to Rio. But here was the world No. 1, arguably the most famous athlete alive, saying he would. Surely, the rest would follow. The International Olympic Committee voted in favour of reintroducing the sport to the Games.

That vote took place in October. A month later, Woods's wife was chasing him out of the house with a nine iron and the golf landscape changed somewhat.

Nevertheless, as it tends to do, irrational exuberance took hold.

"I do believe in time the Olympic gold will become the most important event in golf, and I don't believe it will take that long," Irish pro Pádraig Harrington said at the time.

I guess that depends on what he considers "that long."

No one will hit a ball in anger for a month yet, but Olympic golf is already a disaster.

The top four men's players in the world – Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson – have dropped out, citing concerns over the Zika virus.

It's a convenient excuse, one that allows them to avoid talking about the real one – money and prestige.

During the three weeks of Rio 2016, the PGA Tour will continue as usual. Three tournaments will be held – the Travelers Championship in Connecticut, the John Deere Classic in Illinois and the Wyndham in North Carolina. Their total combined purse: $16.8-million (U.S.).

Playing golf costs money. Most guys maintain a village of support staff. They have sponsors who'd prefer to see them wearing the logos.

Once the men's tour declined to shut down for the duration of the Olympics, no one with a real choice was ever going to go.

Most top women's pros will be in Brazil (despite the fact that you'd think Zika would represent more of a concern to young women).

It's not that they're more patriotic. They're there because the LPGA Tour agreed to take a hiatus during the Olympics. They have nothing better to do. So why not travel on the national dime?

There is a delicious sort of justice to all of this. The Olympics long ago strayed from its motto when it comes to introducing new events. Golf may be the ne plus ultra of that trend.

The sport wasn't included for athletic reasons. No physical endeavour that John Daly excelled at can be said to attain any part of higher, faster or stronger.

Golf was transparently included as a kind of corporate heat marker, to please sponsors and draw in a new sort of viewer.

This was the IOC treating the event list like a fall TV schedule: "We're having trouble shifting tickets to modern pentathlon. We need to class this thing up with some mid-week appointment viewing."

They counted on the lure of an Olympic medal to do their outreach for them.

On Thursday, a genuine golf event begins at Scotland's Royal Troon.

The pre-tournament focus at the British Open is the Olympics, and everyone's lack of interest.

Spieth, a conciliatory fellow, tried the broken-heart routine: "This was something I very much struggled with …one of the hardest decisions of my life."

(Perhaps because Coca-Cola already has his face plastered across its Brazilian billboards.)

A visibly annoyed McIlroy bristled at the suggestion that he'd let down the side: "I didn't get into golf to try and grow the game. I got into golf to win championships and win majors."

McIlroy is becoming the new Woods in ways that go far beyond golf. If you poke him, he pokes back three times as hard.

Asked which parts of the Olympics he'll watch, McIlroy said, "Probably events like track and field, swimming, diving. The stuff that matters."

Well, all right then.

Seven years ago, the IOC had a vision of what golf could be. They'd get a little of that reflected Masters/Open shine. At the time, they must have figured on Woods as a potential flag bearer for the American team. Imagine the erotic shudders going through Nike's executive suites at that thought.

This was a perfect combination of one of the world's most broadly appealing sports with the planet's most familiar athletic brand. The PowerPoint designed itself.

What they overestimated was how much the software in this marketing proposal – the athletes – cared.

In this case, they transparently do not. Golf pros are their own brands. Many will see their goals as antithetical to the Olympics. They have no interest in amateurism. Like race car drivers, they are competitive sharks. Once they stop swimming up the money stream, they risk dying.

It's not that they couldn't afford to take three weeks off. It's that they don't care to be told to do so.

There is a small, but significant danger to all of this for the IOC. The Olympics thrives because a gold medal continues to be seen as the pinnacle of achievement for anyone who runs or jumps or swims or skis. We are interested in watching because they are so intensely consumed with winning.

But what about tennis players? And, beginning in Rio, professional boxers? Or rugby players?

Are the Olympics bigger than Wimbledon, or a world title, or a World Cup? Of course not.

For those people, the Olympics are a nice way to balance the trophy cabinet.

Once that idea takes firm hold – that the Olympics is just another tournament for a substantial number of its participants – the whole endeavour is put at risk.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe