When the International Golf Federation released the final list of the combined 120 men’s and women’s golfers who qualified for the Olympic Games on Monday, it was missing one more big name—Jordan Spieth. The third-ranked men’s golfer in the world and two-time major champion told the IGF that he will not compete when the sport makes its return to the Olympics for the first time in 112 years.
Spieth’s absence allows Matt Kuchar to grab the fourth and final spot on the American team that will consist of Bubba Watson, Rickie Fowler and Patrick Reed.
The American women’s team will consist of Lexi Thompson, Stacy Lewis and Gerina Piller.
During a Monday press conference at Royal Troon, on the eve of the 145th Open Championship, IGF vice president Ty Votaw said that Spieth informed the Federation earlier in the day of his decision not to play, citing in part a concern with Zika. (Also withdrawing from the men’s competition after qualifying were Victor Dubuisson of France and K.T. Kim of South Korea.)
Spieth is scheduled to speak during a pre-Open Championship press conference at Royal Troon today.
With Spieth’s withdrawal, the Olympics will be missing the top four men in the World Ranking, as Jason Day, Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy previously announced they would not be competing in Rio.
The top-ranked men’s player that will be participating in the games is Bubba Watson, ranked No. 5. Of the top 15 men’s players in the world, only eight will be in the Olympic field, and only nine of the top 30.
In contrast, 13 of top 15 women’s players on the Rolex Rankings have qualified and are confirmed to be competing in Rio, the only missing golfers being a pair of South Korean players ineligible to compete because of the limit of four participants per country. Among those who will be in Rio are World No. 1 Lydia Ko and No. 3 Inbee Park, who has been nursing a thumb injury and missed last week’s U.S. Women’s Open, but has spoken for some time of her desire to participate in the Olympics.
Peter Dawson, the former R&A CEO and current IGF president, did his best to remain positive about the Olympics return to the Games but acknowledged his disappointment in the rash of men’s marquee players to withdraw.
“Speaking collectively, though, there is no doubt that the number of withdrawals hasn’t shed golf in the best light,” Dawson said. “It hasn’t shown golf in the best light, and we have to accept that. But we do understand why these individual decisions have been taken.
Dawson added: “We have certainly faced a number of challenges, as I’ve said along the road, this is another one. But we remain confident that we’ll stage two very exciting and compelling golf competitions in Rio.”
In trying to put the scope of the withdrawals from the Games in context, Dawson noted that the players are primarily from four countries—the U.S., Australia, Ireland and South Africa—out of 147 that comprise the IGF. He also used the parallel of tennis and the reluctance of big-name players to compete when that sport returned to the Olympics in 1988.
Dawson and Votaw, who is also an executive VP at the PGA Tour, both defended the IGF in terms of the organization doing the best it could to try to make sure the Olympics secured the best field possible.
“I think it’s been a set of unique circumstances that has developed over the past year or so with respect to the decisions that players have made to decide to participate or not to participate,” Votaw said. “But in terms of our outreach, our education, our trying to get them to understand what all the issues are and what the risks and other factors may be, we think we have done everything we can to educate them in the best possible way.”
In recent weeks, as golfers seem to be the sole athletes pulling out of the Olympics, with many citing the threat of Zika as the deciding factor, there has been speculation that the disease has been used as a convenient reason for some to skip playing an event they already weren’t enthusiastic about. Dawson, however, stood up for the players and defended their decisions.
“I have no knowledge that people are using Zika as an excuse,” Dawson said. “I think there is a genuine concern about this, not just amongst the players but among their families, their wives and their girlfriends and so on. And I think it’s genuine.
Still, Dawson also believes that there has “been something of an overreaction to the Zika situation, but that’s for individuals to determine, and there’s certainly a great deal of concern about this issue inside the game of golf, no doubt about that.”
In the end, 60 players from 34 countries will be competing on both the men’s and women’s sides with 40 countries overall being represented. Votaw says that the tournaments will still be the best showcase—and biggest determiner—for why the sport deserved to return to the Olympic program and should remain beyond 2020.
“I think a lot has been in the run-up to the games talked about some of these unique circumstances that have been laid out and covered by the media,” Votaw said. “But at the end of the day what will ultimately be our best case for any discussion on any level will be the competitions themselves. I think that once we understand how those play out in front of a worldwide audience for television, a digital audience, an enthusiastic on-site audience, I think those are the things that we’re going to be focused on in making sure that the players who are there and the players who are competing are having the best possible experience they can, and put the best possible presentation on.”