International Golf Federation (IGF) president Peter Dawson believes there has been an “overreaction” to the threat of the Zika virus after Jordan Spieth left it to the last minute to join a lengthy list of withdrawals from the Olympics.
Spieth expressed his “concern for health issues” in a telephone call to IGF officials shortly before they hosted a press conference at Royal Troon to announce the 60 eligible players for golf’s return to the Games for the first time since 1904.
More than 20 male players have now opted out of competing in Rio, with the world’s top four – Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Spieth and Rory McIlroy – all citing concerns over Zika, a mosquito-borne virus which has been linked to defects in newborn babies and Guillain-Barre, a rare neurological syndrome which causes temporary paralysis in adults.
Jordan Spieth became the latest golfer to withdraw.
So far, South Africa’s Lee-Anne Pace is the only female player to withdraw.
“We have invested a huge amount of time and effort on player education and they’ve had no lack of opportunity, I think, to make their own well-informed decisions about what they want to do,” Dawson said.
“It’s certainly disappointing that we’ve had so many withdrawals on the men’s side, and wonderful that all of the women have been very supportive.
“There is no doubt that the number of withdrawals 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.
“Personally, I think there’s been something of an overreaction to the Zika situation, but that’s for individuals to determine.
I have no knowledge that people are using Zika as an excuse. I think there is a genuine concern about this, not just amongst the players but among their families, their wives and their girlfriends.
“What I’m hoping is that when we come to play in Tokyo in 2020 that the top players do support Olympic golf. I think it’s very important that they do. It’s the biggest grow-the-game opportunity available and I can’t think of a better way for players to give back to the game, frankly, than to support Olympic golf.”
Although golf will feature in Tokyo, every Olympic sport will be reviewed in 2017, with television and media coverage an important consideration for the IOC.
“At the end of the day what will ultimately be our best case for any discussion on any level will be the competitions themselves,” said IGF vice-president Ty Votaw.
“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.”
McIlroy admitted recently that major championships remained the “pinnacle” of the game ahead of an Olympic gold medal, but Dawson feels it does not have to be an either/or situation.
“They play most weeks of the year not at major championships, so they’re not exclusively playing in majors,” the former R&A chief executive added.
“I just don’t think it actually matters at this point whether they regard it as much as a major or not, frankly. It doesn’t stop them going to play. I do think this is more about the health issues than anything else.”
Dawson admitted it was technically possible that women’s golf could remain in the Olympics if men’s golf was left out, but felt that was “unlikely”.
France’s Victor Dubuisson and Korea’s KT Kim also withdrew on Monday, but Dubuisson wrote on Twitter that his decision was due to poor form and that he would prefer to give his place to compatriot Julien Quesne.