Liam Morgan @ITG

The International Golf Federation (IGF) and its President Peter Dawson should, in the words of the famous Kool and the Gang hit from 1980, be celebrating good times as the sport prepares to make its Olympic return after a 112-year hiatus from the programme.

After all, the governing body believe the decision of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) at its Session in Copenhagen in 2009 to add golf, along with rugby sevens, to the Games will open new doors and breach uncharted territories for a sport which is already played and watched by millions across the globe.

But growing numbers of the game’s top players have been spoiling the party by declining the opportunity to play in the Olympic golf tournament at Rio 2016. It has been a constant concern for Dawson and for the Federation he has led since 2010.

Unfortunately for Dawson and the IGF, just as they seemed to be turning a corner with regards to who will line up on the first tee on the Rio golf course in August following an initial spate of withdrawals, they were dealt a series of crushing blows during a June week they’d rather forget.

It began when world number four Rory McIlroy, a four-time major winner, announced he would not be going. This came despite the Northern Irishman, who had opted to represent Ireland rather than Team GB, claiming just weeks before he made his final decision that he was “ready to play” and that “even if I do contract Zika, it’s not the end of the world".

The 27-year-old also stressed he would be “letting his country down” if he didn’t represent Ireland in Rio. How things change.

McIlroy’s statement in confirming the news, which must have been greeted with banged fists and looks of despair over at the IGF, claimed he was not prepared to take a risk over the Zika virus even though he knew it would be fairly low.

“After speaking with those closest to me, I’ve come to realise that my health and my family’s health comes before anything else,” he said. “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.”

Rory McIlroy performed a dramatic u-turn when he pulled out of Rio 2016 because of the Zika virus ©Getty Images
Rory McIlroy performed a dramatic u-turn when he pulled out of Rio 2016 because of the Zika virus ©Getty Images

McIlroy’s withdrawal proved to be the catalyst and an example others chose to follow. The next day, compatriot Graeme McDowell turned down Rio 2016 as his wife, Kristina, is due to have the couple’s second child two weeks after the conclusion of the golf event in the Brazilian city.

Then, just as the IGF thought they had been through the worst, world number one Jason Day released a statement six days later on Twitter, confirming the governing body’s fear. He too had pulled out.

On the same day as the Australian announced his decision, Ireland’s Shane Lowry followed suit, before Lee-Anne Pace became the first female player to decide not to go, marking another disappointing moment for the IGF.

Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama and American Dustin Johnson - the winner of this year's U.S Open -  became the seventh and eighth male golfers respectively to cite the virus as the reasoning behind their Olympic snubs earlier this week, with world number three Jordan Spieth of the United States also seemingly considering his options, all because of a virus we are frequently told will not be an issue come Games time.

Still, the mosquito-borne disease has been linked with microcephaly - where babies are born with abnormally small heads because of restricted brain development - and has been a prominent issue for organisers and for every one of the 28 Olympic sports.

Golf, however, has suffered the most. There has only been one other high-profile withdrawal elsewhere on the Olympic programme - cyclist Tejay van Garderen - but the majority of those who will take part in this year’s Games are shrugging off the fear of Zika. They simply can’t wait to get out to the Brazilian city, don their nation’s colours and compete against the best in the world.

The constant message disseminating from Rio 2016 is that the risk is minimal, raising suspicions that golf’s leading lights are using Zika as an excuse rather than a genuine reason.  Why just golf? Why aren’t other sports affected?

Yes, golfers are out in the sun for hours on end as they drive, chip and putt their way around the course but surely if it were that big an issue, we’d be looking at widespread withdrawals across a number of sports.

Golf has been the worst sport affected by fears over the Zika virus ©Getty Images
Golf has been the worst sport affected by fears over the Zika virus ©Getty Images

It is also common knowledge that the threats and risks are much greater for women, yet only one has pulled out, only intensifying the excuse argument. Ladies Professional Golfers Association player Stacy Lewis, a two-time major winner, said in a recent interview with GOLF LIVE that she was “disappointed with the way the guys had gone about it”. Those views are certainly echoed by the IGF.

“I have to say when I was down there out on the golf course for 10-12 hours I didn’t see one mosquito and of course the green staff who are working on it day in and day out remain perfectly healthy,” Dawson told insidethegames.

“We are very much in consultation with the players, the IOC, the IGF and Rio and all are giving out good medical advice.

“We’ve got the benefit of the Games being held in winter time so the mosquito count is a lot lower but we are not being complacent and we’re keeping on top of it.”

The IGF has been hit by more than just Zika, however. Before golfers started blaming the disease left, right and centre, major winners Adam Scott of Australia, Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa and his team-mate Charl Schwartzel, all pulled out, citing a packed schedule as their respective reasons. For Fijian Vijay Singh, one of his nation’s most recognisable athletes, it was a bit of both. He is among a group who believe there simply isn’t enough room for another competition.

“It is a very small number of players who have decided not to go and we’re very sorry about that,” Dawson said. 

“At the moment we are looking at the vast majority of the top players making the trip and playing for the gold medal.

“I am disappointed frankly, but it is up to each individual to decide their own destiny. They’re going to be missing out on potentially a very special time in their lives and I am sorry they are not going to participate.”

All this has done is prompt criticism from other sectors of the Olympic Movement, with the most vociferous of dissenting voices coming from senior IOC member Barry Maister. The comments from the New Zealander, one of the more honest and open representatives in sport’s most exclusive club, make for grim reading.

“I think it is appalling," Maister, winner of an Olympic gold medal in hockey at Montreal 1976, told New Zealand radio station Newstalk ZB.

"I don't like it and I don't think the sport should be allowed to continue in the Games under that scenario.

“Just getting in with your name, and then putting up some second or third rate players, is so far from the Olympic ideal or the expectation of the Olympic Movement. The Olympics is about the best, and they pledged the best.

"Quite frankly, any sport that cannot deliver its best athletes, in my view, should not be there.”

Adam Scott of Australia was one of the leading critics of golf being an Olympic sport and withdrew from the event due to the packed tournament schedule on the Tour ©Getty Images
Adam Scott of Australia was one of the leading critics of golf being an Olympic sport and withdrew from the event due to the packed tournament schedule on the Tour ©Getty Images

Those within the golfing fraternity have also expressed doubts. McIlroy, during his time as a Remainer rather than a Leaver, had admitted he feared organisers would wield the Olympic axe over golf if the lack of enthusiasm, which borders on antipathy, surrounding the sport’s return to the programme continues.

The Session in Copenhagen seven years ago ensured golf will feature at two editions of the Games and will be reviewed after Tokyo 2020, but the fear is gradually escalating that the event in the Japanese capital might spell the end if they have a repeat of the lead-up to Rio 2016.

Tokyo 2020 is therefore the real gauge of whether golf has an Olympic future or not. The IGF will dismiss Rio 2016 as a one-off; a trial run for a blossoming relationship between the sport and the Games, and they will know tougher tests lie ahead.

Dawson is even looking at 2024 and beyond. In spite of all the trouble and trauma, the Briton truly believes his sport is here to stay.

“The IOC are tending to look at things by event rather than by sport,” he said.

“We’ll have to see what that means for us but we are very much intending to stay and be a strong part of the Olympic Movement and a strong part of the IOC.

“In a way, from a venues standpoint Los Angeles would be the most beneficial for us [in 2024] as golf is very well served in America as it is in Tokyo. On the other hand, taking the sport to relatively minor golfing countries gives us growth potential so I think there are pluses on both sides.”

As golf’s participation problems continue to mount, a tiny minority of tennis players - though perhaps not quite of the stature of some of the golfers who have declined to compete in Rio - have also decided the Olympics are not for them, despite world number one Novak Djokovic declaring the Games will be the “fifth Grand Slam”.

Australian duo Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic could perhaps be considered special cases following an on-going and rather public spat with their National Olympic Committee, which has tarnished the nation’s preparations ahead of the Games. Both will be notable absentees when the first ball is hit.

Golf's Olympic suitability has been compared with tennis ©Getty Images
Golf's Olympic suitability has been compared with tennis ©Getty Images

There’s little doubt Chef de Mission Kitty Chiller may regret airing her dirty laundry in public as the pair were unquestionably their two best hopes of an Olympic medal. Kyrgios confirmed his decision was made because of the row with Chiller, which was also a factor in Tomic’s withdrawal, though he has always insisted it was also so he could compete at an ATP Tour event in Mexico.

Others, including rising Austrian star Dominic Thiem, who reached the semi-finals of the French Open on the bright red clay at Roland Garros, American John Isner and Spain’s Feliciano Lopez, have also opted out, mainly due to the fact ranking points, the bread and butter for those players outside of the top echelon of the sport, will not be available.

The similarities between tennis and golf being on the Olympic programme are evident, even to Dawson, who will be hoping the parallels continue. After all, following a rocky start, tennis players now look forward to the Olympics with the same (if not more) vigour than the four annual Grand Slam tournaments.

“I think golf’s closest parallel is tennis,” Dawson told me. “Tennis took a little while to settle down but now you see the top tennis players very keen to win medals and I think golf will be like that, possibly even quicker than tennis.

“As you get in to a generation which grows up with golf as an Olympic sport then you’re going to see a slightly different attitude than golfers who haven’t. These things take a little time.

“In the early years of tennis at the Games, quite a lot of top players didn’t play and it has moved on since then and I’m sure golf will be the same.”

Zika, withdrawals and fears for the future. The IGF has experienced it all. Yet amid the current climate, it is perhaps easy to forget that concerns were synonymous with golf’s Olympic rebirth long before a disease caused by mosquitoes was anywhere near the lips of organisers and medical professionals alike.

Rio’s golf course, designed by American Gil Hanse and which spans 970,000 metres squared, was unveiled way back in November to a reception which was far from positive.

The problems began in 2012, when a legal dispute over the ownership of the land between Italian developer Mauro Pasquale and Elmway Participacoes meant the course was not given the green light until April 2013, before public prosecutors in Brazil called for the suspension of work on the venue because of environmental concerns the following year.

Throughout 2015, campaigners frequently voiced their hostility over the damage the facility, located at Reserva de Marapendi in Barra da Tijuca, one of the main hubs of Games venues, was doing to nature. Tensions had reached boiling point in February when a group of protesters confronted IOC President Thomas Bach following an Executive Committee meeting in the Brazilian city.

One particular member of the group, a lady who identified herself only as Sandra, screamed “IOC go home”, while others held banners with strong and to-the-point messages which declared “Thomas Bach is a nature killer” among other things.

Welcome to Rio, Mr President.

The Rio 2016 golf course had faced a number of issues before it was officially unveiled in November ©Getty Images
The Rio 2016 golf course had faced a number of issues before it was officially unveiled in November ©Getty Images

The timeline of unfortunate events had followed mounting anxiety surrounding the Olympic golf course as a whole, which experienced delay after delay, particularly with the planting of the grass. At one point, there was almost an acceptance that the test event in the sport would not be held in November as planned.

Of course, it went ahead on schedule and passed by remiss of any serious issues, providing another example of the the initial public trepidation expressed from the IGF and others serving as little more than a proverbial kick up the backside in a bid to encourage organisers to get a move on.

The attitude is one which has become synonymous with the build-up to an Olympic Games, and is particularly relevant as we draw ever closer to the Rio 2016 Opening Ceremony on August 5.

Fears about readiness of venues, security and other mitigating factors gradually subside once the sporting action gets underway - will the Zika furore be anywhere near as vehement when Usain Bolt runs a world record time to win Olympic 100 metres gold, for example? - but golf is in danger of bucking that particular trend. The view that it will be alright on the night might not prove to be accurate.

In the absence of several star names, the pressure is on for those who have committed to competing in the first Olympic golf tournament for more than a century as the well-documented withdrawals of their higher-ranked counterparts hang over them like an unwanted shadow. Dawson is confident they will deliver a great spectacle of his sport.

“The golf course is super, really good,” Dawson said. “The design has been everything we hoped it would be and the staff have done a fantastic job getting the course into wonderful condition so we are very pleased.

“The clubhouse itself has been built but there is still a little work to do around it but that’s in hand so yes, we are very pleased.

“It will be extensively covered on television which is good and we are hoping golf will be viewed by many people around the globe who don’t usually see the sport.

“At the Olympics you often watch sports you don’t normally see and we are hoping that is going to be true for golf to help grow the game.

“I think the golfers are going to have an experience they will never forget, mixing with the athletes from other sports, which is something they don’t get to do and will be something they remember for the rest of their lives.

“You’re going to see a combination of the world’s top players and a very good geographic spread of players of national interest from various countries around the world.

“All in all, I think golf’s return is great on many levels.”

IGF President Peter Dawson is confident golf will be a hit at Rio 2016 despite the multitude of concerns which have plagued the build-up ©Getty Images
IGF President Peter Dawson is confident golf will be a hit at Rio 2016 despite the multitude of concerns which have plagued the build-up ©Getty Images

In one of the more light-hearted stories to emerge about golf’s Olympic return, it seems the course may not only be inhabited by the players during the competition.

At least five trained handlers will be on site in order to scare animals, including alligator-like caimans and capybaras, the world's largest rodent, away from the course.

“Yes I have seen some of that,” chuckled Dawson.

“But most of the tour events played in Florida and places like that have alligators on the course so the golfers are quite used to that.”

The ever-optimistic Dawson will be praying more players get used to the idea of golf as an Olympic sport, but the build-up to Rio 2016 has suggested it may only be a fleeting romance with the world’s largest sporting event.

A turnaround in fortune ahead of Rio and beyond, however unlikely, will surely be a cause for celebration.