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Why golf does not belong in the Olympics

Every major golf event is an international competition. The best players aren’t here. The sport isn’t big enough. And golf pays plenty at the highest level. The sport does not need the Olympics.

RIO DE JANEIRO — I have not heard much here about Zika, a virus that poses a grave threat to pregnant women and male golfers.

What? Didn’t you hear about the golfers? Jordan Spieth pulled out. Jason Day pulled out. So did Dustin Johnson and Adam Scott. Rory McIlroy pulled out, then said he wouldn’t even watch golf at the Olympics; apparently he was worried about getting Zika through his TV.

I don’t question their patriotism. There are more patriotic acts in this world than using a stick to hit a ball into a hole so you can win a fancy necklace. I don’t question their toughness, their desire, their integrity or their career choices.

I do question their ability to use Google—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website says “The illness is usually mild with symptoms lasting up to a week, and many people do not have symptoms or will have only mild symptoms.” Basically, unless you are pregnant or trying to get pregnant, you probably shouldn’t worry. But look, if golfers don’t want to be here, they don’t have to be here. It’s their choice. They don’t have to apologize for it.

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But life is about weighing risks versus rewards, something I try to keep in mind every time I buy food at an Olympic venue. And virtually every other eligible athlete, in virtually every other sport, decided the reward of participating in the Olympics outweighed any risks.

The Olympics just don’t mean that much to the world’s best male golfers. If they want gold, they can fly the ol’ private jet to Saudi Arabia, get paid crazy money for an event that means nothing, then use the payout to buy big blocks of gold. Even Matt Kuchar, who actually is here, didn’t understand the rules until, like, 10 minutes ago.

Certain things do not belong at the Olympics: performance-enhancing drugs, green water in the diving pool, Vladimir Putin and men’s golf. Definitely men’s golf.

Even the format is dumb. It’s four rounds of stroke play, which is boring and makes Olympic golf just like any PGA Tour event that’s missing some stars. It’s the South American version of the John Deere Classic. The IOC could have tweaked the format so it was a true team event, but there really aren’t that many countries that could field competitive multi-golfer teams, and it still wouldn’t mean as much to fans or golfers as the Ryder Cup.

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To be in the Olympics, a sport should fulfill at least some of these requirements:

1. The Olympics is the biggest international competition in that sport.

2. The best players in the world want to play the Olympics.

3. The sport is played at high level in a few dozen countries.

4. The Olympics must be essential to the sport’s growth.

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Men’s golf checks none of these boxes. (You can argue differently for women’s golf, but let’s put that aside for a moment.) Every major golf event is an international competition. The best players aren’t here. The sport isn’t big enough. And golf, at the highest level, is printing cash. The sport does not need the Olympics.

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You may say, “Hey, hey, hey. Golf is just like tennis. Both have four major championships and don’t need the Olympics. What’s the difference?”

The difference was obvious to those of us who watched Serena Williams this week (I saw her play doubles with her sister Venus on Sunday night). She didn’t play well, and she made some mental mistakes, but she was there, emotionally. We saw the full Serena—barking at herself, getting annoyed by how long an opponent’s challenge was taking. And this was in doubles!

Shortly after the Williams sisters lost, I watched Novak Djokovic lose an absolutely fantastic match to Juan Martin del Petro, which left Djokovic in tears afterward. It seemed to hit him that he won’t win an Olympic gold medal, and in that moment, being No. 1 in the world was no consolation. That’s why tennis belongs. The Olympics matter in the tennis world. If you see a male golfer cry this week, it will be because his ball hit a rodent. EXPERT PICKS Who wins golf's gold medal in Rio?

You may say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Wait a second. LeBron James and Steph Curry skipped the Olympics. They are the two best basketball players in the world. Should we get rid of men’s basketball, too?”

That is a specious argument. First of all, James has participated in three Olympics. He skipped it this time to rest his body because the NBA season is long and he turns 32 in December. Curry would be here if he hadn’t gotten hurt this spring.

Basketball is one of the most-played sports in the world, and it has a long and storied Olympic history. Mention 1972 or 1992 to a longtime basketball fan, and those Olympics come to mind immediately.

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You may say, “Um, um, um … where are Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo? FIFA limits men’s Olympic rosters to the best 23-and-under players, but each team gets three overage exceptions, and most of the biggest stars skip the Olympics. Olympic men’s soccer is not nearly as big as the World Cup. Should we ban men’s soccer from the Olympics?”

Of course not. Soccer is the most popular sport in the world. It should absolutely be part of the biggest international sporting event in the world. No, Olympic soccer is not nearly as big as the World Cup. But soccer belongs here, because soccer is played everywhere. 

You may say, “But, but, but … the IOC is bringing baseball back in 2020. That’s not a worldwide sport, and the best players won’t be there, and baseball doesn’t need the Olympics because the best professional leagues bring in a ton of revenue!”

I agree, baseball should not be part of the Olympics. Softball should be, sure. That’s a different sport and completely different situation. It’s a shame that the IOC always groups them together when it makes these decisions.

As for golf … well, I’m sure some of the men here are excited. But there is a reason Rory McIlroy won’t watch. He is right: Golf does not belong in the Olympics.