Golfers will drive, chip and putt as the greens and fairways game returns to the Olympics schedule for the first time in 112 years at Rio 2016.

Due to the fears of the Zika virus, perhaps, the sport has been rocked by several high-profile withdrawals including  the world number one,  Jason Day, Jordan Spieth (number two), Scott Adam, four time major winner, Rory McIlroy.

Others to follow suit included; Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, American Dustin Johnson – the winner of this year’s U.S Open, Graeme McDowell, Ireland’s Shane Lowry, Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa and his team-mate Charl Schwartzel.

Lee-Anne Pace became the first female player to decide not to go.

The International Golf Federation President, President Peter Dawson is excited the sport makes an Olympic return after a 112-year hiatus from the programme.

This followed the 2009 decision passed in Copenhagen of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to add golf, along with Rugby 7s to the Games.

McIlroy is quoted by inside the;

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

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.

International Golf Federation President, President Peter Dawson

Precautions are being taken to ensure the event goes as successful as projected.

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.

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.

It is a very small number of players who have decided not to go and we’re very sorry about that

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.

For Fijian Vijay Singh, one of his nation’s most recognizable athletes, it was a bit of both. He is among a group who believe there simply isn’t enough room for another competition.

“I think it is appalling. 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.”

” Maister, winner of an Olympic gold medal in hockey at Montreal 1976, told New Zealand radio station Newstalk ZB.

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”.

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. 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 – Pete Sampras never played – and it has moved on since then and I’m sure golf will be the same.” Dawson said.

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.

About the Rio Course:

Rio’s golf course was designed by American Gil Hanse and which spans 970,000 metres squared.

It was unveiled way back in November to a reception which was far from positive.

There was 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.

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.

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.”

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.

[Script extract from inside]

David Isabirye is a senior staff writer for Kawowo Sports where he covers most of the major events.

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