By Doug Ferguson
AP Golf Writer
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem doesn’t believe that five players skipping the Olympics will hurt golf’s chances for staying on the program beyond 2020.
Golf returns to the Olympics this year in Rio for the first time since 1904. While it is set for 2020 in Tokyo, the International Olympic Committee will vote in 2017 whether the sport stays on the program beyond that.
Adam Scott and Marc Leishman of Australia, Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa and Vijay Singh of Fiji have said they will not compete, mostly citing a busy summer schedule of major events. Leishman was concerned about the Zika virus because his wife, who nearly died last year from toxic shock syndrome, has a susceptible immune system.
“If you look at the broader things that the IOC looks at from a sport … the reason they like golf is it’s growing around the globe, it’s bringing young people to the game,” Finchem said Tuesday. “It’s one of the few sports that’s actively very popular on every continent — just to different levels, but reasonably popular on every continent. So it’s truly a global sport, and it’s a sport that works quite well with sponsorship, and they’re in that business.
“I don’t think any of those variables are going to change after this year,” he said. “I think we’ll be in good shape.”
Finchem said it would have helped golf’s chances had the IOC voted for this year’s games to be held in Chicago instead of Brazil because “Rio is not a golf country.” Without a suitable golf course in Brazil, architect Gil Hanse designed one for the Olympics that was behind schedule because of legal fights over property ownership and environmental concerns.
Finchem, who is on the International Golf Federation board, said the tour has talked to all five players who have opted not to play and said it was a combination of issues, starting with a tight golf season. To clear room for the Olympics, the PGA Championship has moved to the end of July, meaning two majors will be held in the month before the men’s competition starts in Rio.
He also said the Zika virus might have played a role, and some players haven’t made the Olympics a priority just yet.
“The easy thing to do would be to say, ‘Well, let’s just pass this year. We’ll go to Tokyo.’ So I think it’s some combination of things, really,” Finchem said. “I don’t want to pain the players as making these decisions based on any one thing. I think they’re being legitimate when they have said what they have said. But I do think we have had a combination of things that have created some issues this year.
“But we seem to be doing OK, and I think we’re going to have a superb Olympics once we get down there.”
LPGA Tour commissioner Mike Whan, also on the IGF board, said the women have embraced a return to the Olympics. He said five or six players have asked him about the Zika virus, though none has said she is not planning to play because of it.
“I don’t know any player who’s even said, ‘I’m on the fence,’” Whan said. “I’ve got plenty of players at the age where this could be concerning, but I haven’t heard any player say they’re interested in stepping out.”