Golf’s return to the Olympics this summer is in danger of losing all credibility following Rory McIlroy’s shattering decision to pull out of Rio owing to fears over the Zika virus.
The organisers must be bracing themselves for a domino effect, with other high-profile names in the sport using the Northern Irishman’s announcement as their excuse to follow suit.
As it is, McIlroy joins an already lengthy list of withdrawals, including Australians Adam Scott and Marc Leishman, and South Africans Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel.But it could get far worse.
Tiger Woods recognised the dangers when asked about it last night at the PGA Tour event in Washington, where he is the host.
‘It will be a spectacular event just because it’s the Olympics, but I wish the field was a bit more top-heavy, with more quality,’ said the 40-year-old, who played a key role in golf earning its return to the biggest stage for the first time since 1904. ‘The Olympics deserve that.’
McIlroy revealed recently he and fiancee Erica Stoll were thinking about starting a family, and that has ultimately been the key factor in his announcement.
The main concern with Zika — which has been rife in Rio over the past six months though less so recently — is the threat to babies in the womb, causing some to be born with abnormally small heads. It can spread through sexual contact.
The 27-year-old’s decision still came as a surprise, however, for it was just a fortnight ago he said his fears had been assuaged after lengthy consultations with experts.
In a statement, McIlroy explained why he had changed his mind. ‘After speaking with those closest to me, I’ve come to realise my health and my family’s health come 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.’
Will others now have a similar change of heart? World No 1 Jason Day, Masters champion Danny Willett and the new US Open champion Dustin Johnson all have young children and are hoping to have more, while Jordan Spieth said recently he was having second thoughts about going to Rio.
McIlroy’s decision was most keenly felt in Ireland, of course. After all the celebrations when he chose to represent Ireland rather than Team GB — as a Northern Irish citizen, he was eligible for both — they have now lost perhaps their outstanding gold medal prospect, and there was no disguising the anguish.
A statement from the Olympic Council of Ireland read: ‘We’re extremely disappointed not to be taking Rory with us to Rio. Rory was set to be one of the big stars of Rio 2016 but now there is an opportunity for another Irish golfer to take up the chance to become an Olympian.’
Graeme McDowell is next on the list to join Shane Lowry, but with his wife due to give birth to their second child shortly after the Olympics, veteran Padraig Harrington may yet get the chance to fulfil a long- held dream.
Recognising the inevitable hurt a lot of Irish sports fans will be feeling, McIlroy added in his statement: ‘I trust the Irish people will understand my decision. The unwavering support I receive every time I compete in a golf tournament at home or abroad means the world to me.’
The International Golf Federation, the sport’s Olympic governing body whose representatives include Peter Dawson, former chief executive of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, said all the right things in their statement. But after working so hard to get the sport back in the Olympics, they must be fearing the worst.
Vice-president Ty Votaw said: ‘It’s disappointing, of course, that Rory will not be there but whoever stands on top of that podium to get a gold medal will do something that none of the great players in this modern era have been able to experience and we continue to believe it will be a very special moment in our sport.’
Sadly, with all the withdrawals, it is looking less special almost by the day.
The chances of Tiger Woods being fit to play in the Open Championship at Royal Troon look slim after the 14-time major champion said on Tuesday he still had no date for his return.
Woods has not played since last August owing to back surgery, and although he would not rule out competing in Scotland in three weeks, it did not sound like he was on the brink of a comeback.
‘It’s getting better,’ he said. ‘I just hope that everything clicks in and I can start playing again sooner rather than later. I miss playing against the guys.’