Rio 2016: Colin Montgomerie 'disappointed' at top golfers' withdrawals

By Tom EnglishBBC Scotland at Castle Stuart
Colin Montgomerie
Colin Montgomerie says it is "disappointing" players have pulled out of the Olympics

Colin Montgomerie has criticised the elite golfers who have withdrawn from the Rio Olympic Games.

The Scot bemoaned the absence of Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott - all top-eight players in the world - plus a dozen others who have ruled themselves out, citing the Zika virus.

"First time we're back in the Olympics since 1904 and we don't show up," said former Ryder Cup captain Montgomerie.

"It's a shame that a number of top players have decided not to go."

The Zika virus is mosquito-borne and has been linked to defects in newborn babies.

"If there was as many ladies not going, you might have thought that was OK," Montgomerie continued.

"One lady has pulled out. There you go. How many men? It's disappointing."

Henrik Stenson offered some levity on the subject and goodness knows it was needed. Golf in the Olympics has become the touchiest topic.

As one stellar name after another - seven major winners and counting - withdraw from the Games by way of earnest lines about the Zika virus and the damage it might do to their unborn child, Stenson spoke with humour on the whole wretched business while on duty at the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart.

"It's the only time when it's a competitive advantage to be 40-plus," said the 40-year-old world number six. "I'm done with the bambino thing.

"I've got three kids at home and I'm not looking to have any more. I might be in a different situation [to other players], but the Zika virus is not a concern of mine.

"It's the one good thing about being 40 and being done with the baby boom."

The view from the States

Patrick Reed
Patrick Reed said he will play for the USA if he is called upon

Golf needed Stenson to talk up the Games. Patrick Reed, the American, weighed in too.

"Any time I can wear the Stars and Stripes, I do it," said Reed. "If I get the call tomorrow, I'll be on the flight.

"It doesn't matter where it is, when it is. If I can play for my country, I'm going to play.

"I've talked to Justine [his wife, a registered nurse] and she looks at it the same way. We have our little baby girl and so we've already started our family. It's risk-reward. I've always dreamed about being able to play for a gold medal."

This is thorny stuff for golf. Phil Mickelson spoke about it all on Wednesday as well. It was only a one-word answer, but given the nature of the question and the man who it answered it, it was telling nonetheless.

Asked if he was concerned about golf's future participation in the Olympic Games, he replied: "Probably."

Mickelson made it clear that, if only his form was good enough and his ranking high enough, he'd be honoured to represent his country.

He's too far out of the reckoning for that, but in Mickelson's demeanour, and in the demeanour of others such as Montgomerie, you sensed a disappointment and a worry about the absence from Rio of some of the game's most stellar names, among them three of the world's top-eight players and three more in the top 20 - Branden Grace, Louis Oosthuizen and Hideki Matsuyama.

So far, 15 male players have ruled themselves out of the Games. Major winners Graeme McDowell, Vijay Singh and Charl Schwartzel are also on the list.

Englishman Andy Sullivan, the world number 40, is the latest to make the call. Sullivan, like others on the list, would have not have made his national team, but his announcement adds to the air of negativity around the Games nonetheless.

By contrast only one female player has withdrawn - Lee-Ann Pace, the world number 37 from South Africa.

The reaction from outside golf

Montgomerie's exasperated tone was obvious. He knows how all this looks.

He's seen the comments by Rebecca Adlington, the Olympic champion swimmer, almost mocking the golfers who say they have been spooked by Zika. Katie Taylor, the iconic Irish boxer and another Olympic champion, has also had a pop.

They won't be the last stars from other sports to pour scorn on the golfers who have decided to skip Rio.

The controversy is not just about those who are not travelling, but the reasons why. Suspicions reign.

Is it really about Zika or more about a lack of interest in the Olympics, a refusal to tweak schedules to accommodate an event that is about national pride over individual glory? Scott said very firmly that it was the latter. So, too, Day. McIlroy said that it was a mixture of both.

Murray and Soares unconcerned by Rio Zika fears

Padraig Harrington has been an interesting voice in all of this. The Irishman has been an Olympic fan all of his life and, because of the withdrawals of three of his countryman, he's going to be a competitor at the Games.

Harrington sees all the arguments. "Players are not individuals in this," he said last week. "They're married, their wives are at home saying, 'This is crazy, you're not putting the family first if you go to the Olympics'. Some are scared because they want to start a family. And that's valid.

"I'll agree that there are players who are not interested in the Olympics - yet. Some of them don't see it as a big deal. Some of these guys feel it's not adding to their careers."

A game of claim and counter-claim

The interpretation about Zika and its threat - or otherwise - changes depending on who you listen to. These golfers have been pilloried for staying away from Rio despite the fact that Zika is not just in Rio, it's in 64 countries worldwide, including Barbados, where McIlroy recently holidayed, and Florida, where he now lives.

Zika has spread to central and South America and into Asia. In Rio, now in wintertime, the number of reported cases are falling all the time. Back at the start of the year, there were numbers in the thousands per week. Now that figure is in the hundreds. This in a population of 16m people in Rio state.

Padraig Harrington
Padraig Harrington will be going to the Games

Hence the mocking of golf's stay-aways. The risk of infection is stated at one in 350,000. The World Health Organisation has said the risk is very low, an assessment supported by the Oswaldo Cruz Institute, a respected medical think tank in Brazil.

But, for every argument, there is a counter argument from another equally qualified expert.

Professor Sam McConkey, head of the department of international health and tropical medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, urged caution.

"Anybody who is considering conceiving a child in the next six to 12 months shouldn't be travelling voluntarily to Brazil," he said.

"If someone is considering fathering children, that would be a sound, wise, evidence-based reason not to travel to Brazil right now."

The story continues. As, you suspect, will the withdrawals.