In seven weeks, golf will return to the Summer Olympics for the first time in 112 years. It is getting increasingly difficult to tell how many of the world’s top players will be there.
For months, as questions persisted over whether PGA Tour pros were sufficiently jazzed about the event, organizers emphasized that stars such as Jordan Spieth and Jason Day were enthusiastic. But enthusiastic and committed are proving to be two very different things.
Just a few weeks after declaring himself “ready to play,” world No. 4 Rory McIlroy released a statement Wednesday saying that he has decided not to travel to Rio de Janeiro for the Olympics, citing concerns over the Zika virus.
“Even though the risk of infection from the Zika virus is considered low, it is a risk nonetheless and a risk I am unwilling to take,” said McIlroy, who was born in Northern Ireland but planned to represent Ireland.
Hours later, top-ranked Jason Day of Australia said he couldn’t yet commit to the men’s tournament, which begins Aug. 11.
“It’s a life decision that you have to make,” Day said during a visit to Baltusrol Golf Club, where he will defend his PGA Championship title next month. “Family for me is priority number one. I have to make sure that they’re happy, and from there I’ll make the decision.”
Day’s comments came just days after Spieth and fellow American Rickie Fowler, both of whom were presumed to be all-in for Rio, hedged on their plans. Before the U.S. Open last week, Spieth said he was going “pending schedule changes” and politely corrected a reporter who said he had decided to play.
Fowler, one of three other Americans expected to qualify, said he still needs to learn more about potential health and security issues in Brazil. “I’d love to have the opportunity to go down there, but we don’t know for sure yet,” he said.
Danny Willett, Masters champion and England’s highest-ranked golfer? “It’s still up in the air,” he said.
All told, only four of the top 10 players in the world have been unequivocal about their intent to play: Americans Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson, Sweden’s Henrik Stenson and England’s Justin Rose.
Eighth-ranked Adam Scott of Australia has already removed himself from consideration, citing a busy schedule. He joins South Africans Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel, Vijay Singh of Fiji, Miguel Angel Jimenez of Spain and Marc Leishman of Australia on Team Staying Home in 2016.
Ireland’s Shane Lowry and Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama—both top-25 players—have also expressed uncertainty about their plans in recent weeks, citing Zika. “I won’t know right until the last minute,” Matsuyama told Japanese news outlets earlier this month.
While a handful of other high-profile athletes, such as Pau Gasol of the Chicago Bulls, have said they are staying home because of the Zika risk, golfers seem to be more concerned than most.
This is likely due to scheduling as much as anything: the Games are sandwiched in between the PGA Championship, which is the final major of the year, and the FedEx Cup tournaments that culminate with a $10 million prize to the winner.
In fairness, Olympic golfers will also be required to be outdoors for as long as six to seven hours at a time—not an entirely appetizing prospect in the midst of a mosquito-borne epidemic.
On the PGA Tour, players are typically not required to commit to playing in an event until the Friday before it begins. “I’m not sure where I’ll play next, even after this week,” Spieth said. “I mean, you just never know.”
The Olympics don’t really work that way. The cutoff for Olympic qualifying for golf is July 11. On that date, a field of 60 players will tentatively qualify based on their world ranking, with a limit of two players per country— unless a country has more than two players in the top 15. Those players qualify at a limit of four per country.
Ty Votaw, a PGA Tour executive who is also vice president of the International Golf Federation, said each national Olympic committee then has until July 18 to confirm their entries.
After that, any qualified player who bails on the Games for reasons short of what the IGF calls “urgent medical conditions” or “exceptional circumstances” could cost his country a spot in the tournament. The replacement list is based on the world rankings.
“I think that we’ll have an excellent Olympic Games,” Votaw said. “We’re spending a lot of time talking to players and their representatives about the issues that they’re raising.”
It’s worth noting that the men’s field represents only half of golf’s return to the Olympics. Not one female golfer has publicly expressed any doubts about their intent to participate in the women’s tournament, which begins Aug. 17. World No. 1 Lydia Ko of New Zealand became the latest player to say earlier this month that she is undaunted by Zika and excited about the chance to win a gold medal.
But the loss of McIlroy, a four-time major winner who would have been among the most famous athletes at the Summer Games, is undoubtedly a blow for the sport’s long-awaited Olympic return. While golf is set to be included in the 2020 Games in Tokyo, its Olympic future beyond that will be subject to an IOC vote in 2017.
In 2009, when golf was voted back into the Olympics, organizers surely dreamed of a 40-year-old Tiger Woods strolling the Rio fairways and commanding the attention of network cameras. Now, Woods is on indefinite hiatus from the game, Zika concerns are scaring off top players and the makeup of the men’s field is as murky as ever.