Why did some top golfers skip the Olympics?

There are quite a few reasons why some top pros decided to skip Olympic golf and they’re all valid (in my opinion), regardless of what the sport’s governing bodies, corporate sponsors, and sports columnists say.


Tl;dr

The top golfers who chose to skip the 2016 Olympics in Rio were right to do so. With serious risk factors like the Zika virus and poor security, as well as legitimate professional concerns like a lack of prestige, a cramped summer schedule, cost, and the fact that there was no prize money.


The Zika Virus
This is a situation where on one side you have doctors and others saying that the chances of contracting Zika while in Rio are very low, especially given that it’s winter there now. These same people even say having Zika is just like a mild case of the flu and that everyone’s fears are overblown. 1

On the other side there is the very real possibility — even if it’s slight — of athletes getting Zika, passing it to their partners sexually, and having a baby born with microcephaly. 2 And there’s also the chance of developing Guillain-Barré Syndrome, which has been linked to Zika and can cause paralysis.3

Former world number one Jason Day cited Zika as a major concern for him and his wife if they were to try to have another child.4 World number 13 [46 at the time] Marc Leishman did as well, especially in light of almost losing his wife to toxic shock syndrome. 5

More than 100 prominent physicians, bioethicists and scientists from around the world posted an open letter in late May urging the World Health Organization to exert pressure on Olympic authorities to move the Olympics from Rio de Janeiro or delay the Games because of public health concerns over the Zika virus.6

Security
In their normal competitive lives, the top professional golfers rarely have to worry about security to the degree that would be necessary to safely compete at the Olympics. Their tournaments are held at private clubs and resorts, with adequate security from local law enforcement, paid staff, and volunteers.

Rio is a city that in late June had its own police and firefighters at the airport holding a sign welcoming tourists to “Hell” because first responders weren’t being paid their salaries.7

And the security problems these first responders warned of turned out not to be just another fear that was “overblown.”

There have been reported robberies of Australian rowing coaches8, photojournalists9, and Swedish tourists10 at these games.

Lack of Prestige
The Olympics hasn’t had golf as a sport since 1904, so there’s no modern precedent for where being awarded a medal would fit in a golfer’s Hall of Fame credentials. Major tournaments won is the current metric for greatness in the game, and there are four majors each year: The Masters, US Open, The Open Championship, and PGA Championship.

If the IOC chooses not to keep golf in the games after Tokyo 2020, it’s likely that Justin Rose’s gold medal will be mentioned after his US Open and tournament victories.

Scheduling Concerns & Career Implications 
With the Olympics on the schedule, professional golfers were faced with a compressed and hectic summer that crammed three majors, the US Open, The Open Championship, and PGA Championship, and the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, into a seven week period.11

It could be argued that winning the John Deere Classic, the tournament running opposite of the Olympic golf event, would mean more for a professional golfer than winning Olympic gold, especially for a golfer on the FedEx Cup bubble. Winners of PGA TOUR events that award a full-point allocation for the season-ending Tour Championship receive a coveted spot at The Masters12 and the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, a no-cut event in Maui that paid out $59,500 to the golfers who tied for last place in 2016.

PGA TOUR professional Camilo Villegas would have represented his home country of Colombia in the Olympics but chose to skip the Olympics in order to try to keep his playing status for the 2017-2018 season.13

Essentially some golfers were given the choice of making a final push to keep their careers going at the highest level versus playing for their country in a tournament with no prize money in an unsafe city. That’s a tough choice.

Cost / Lack of Prize Money
Tour status and physical risks aside, there are some basic costs that make competing in the Olympic golf event a costly endeavor. There are the costs for flights to Rio, lodging for guests, and private transportation if they choose. Players and caddies are able to stay in the Olympic Village, but the player is still on the hook for paying for the caddie’s services.14

There is no prize money awarded to any of the athletes competing in the Olympic golf event. Winners of Olympic medals are even subject to income taxes in the US.15

The winner of the John Deere Classic, Ryan Moore, won $864k, was awarded 500 FedEx Cup Points, and jumped 39 spots in the FedEx Cup rankings to 23rd. Olympic golf gold medalist Justin Rose dropped two spots to 50th overall.

Some countries do pay their athletes for medaling in an event, up to $1 million for athletes from Singapore (the US offers $25k, Great Britain £0.).16

Professional Golf Is Not Like Baseball (or Basketball, or Football)
There are no guaranteed contracts in professional golf beyond deals signed with sponsors.

In the case of most PGA TOUR events, golfers must play well enough for the first two days of a four day tournament to make the cut in the event and be in the money. A missed cut can be expensive for a player without much in the way of sponsor money; the caddie, coach, hotels, and airlines still need to be paid.

Players who miss cuts and thus miss out on money and FedEx Cup points, fail to keep their playing privileges for the next year, pushing them down to the Web.com Tour, competing in Monday qualifiers, or asking for a limited number of sponsor’s exemptions to keep playing.17

Professional golfers in this day and age, especially those at the top of the rankings, are like corporations unto themselves. They employ a team of people from agents and coaches to chefs and nannies, and the player (and caddie) are ultimately responsible for maximizing the amount of money made over a career that averages just under 6 years at the PGA TOUR level.18

Is it worth putting the whole corporation at risk for something of unknown value?

  1. Rio Olympic organizers again downplay Zika fears
  2. CDC Press Releases
  3. http://www.cdc.gov/zika/about/gbs-qa.html
  4. Jason Day on Twitter
  5. Rio 2016: Marc Leishman pulls out of Olympic Games over Zika virus
  6. 150 experts say Olympics must be moved or postponed because of Zika
  7. Brazilian police greet tourists with 'Welcome to Hell' sign at Rio airport
  8. Rio 2016: Australian rowing coaches robbed at knifepoint during Olympic Games
  9. News Corp photographer Brett Costello robbed in broad daylight on Ipanema beach
  10. Why Rio Olympics is on course to be most crime-ridden games
  11. Hect target="_blank"ic schedule is main reason top golfers are shunning Rio Olympics
  12. Qualification for Masters invitation
  13. Golfer Camilo Villegas out of Olympics, citing tour status
  14. GNN: Do caddies get Olympic medals in golf?
  15. Congrats you won a gold medal. Now here's your tax bill
  16. U.S. ranks ninth on list of countries paying out bonuses for gold medals
  17. 2015-2016 PGA TOUR Eligibility Ranking
  18. The Economics of Competitive Sports