Rio 2016: Golfers 'unaware of Olympic potential', says one of the sport's biggest sponsors

By Iain CarterBBC golf correspondent
Rio de Janeiro
An aerial view of the Olympic Golf Course in Rio de Janeiro

One of golf's biggest sponsors is warning the sport not to squander the game's return to the Olympics.

A string of high profile stars, including world number one Jason Day and four times major winner Rory McIlroy, have withdrawn from the Rio Games because of worries over the Zika virus.

Major winners Adam Scott, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel cited scheduling issues for their absence.

The Olympics start on 5 August.

Now there are fears the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will take a dim view and vote golf out of the Olympics after the Tokyo Games in 2020.

Giles Morgan, HSBC's global head of sponsorship, says the sport has to make the most of its return after a 112-year absence.

"My hope is that they can use the Olympic Games as a wonderful catalyst to help grow the audience base," he told BBC Sport.

Morgan believes some players are unaware of the potential on offer and that the game in general is in "a muddle" over its scheduling and competitive set up.

"I think many of the golfers don't realise quite how big the Olympics television and media exposure will give them," Morgan said.

"The 21st Century is changing how sports are consumed and played and if you were to ask any sport if they could have an opportunity to grow their sport and use the Olympic Games as their vehicle, many would be absolutely champing at the bit."

Morgan's company pours millions of pounds into professional golf, backing events like next week's Open at Royal Troon and the WGC Champions tournament in Shanghai.

He is encouraged by the attitude of other players who are embracing the prospect of playing in Rio. This week Henrik Stenson reiterated his desire to compete for Sweden while Spain's Sergio Garcia tweeted his enthusiasm for the event.

Sergio Garcia
Sergio Garcia wrote on Twitter that he will be competing at Rio in August

"It wasn't like the Olympics came to golf, golf applied through the whole process," Morgan said.

"You would have hoped, I think, that more players would have reacted like Sergio with a very positive support for the Olympics.

"Seeing that it is not only a chance for him to play for his country and that whole fervour of national pride, which is what the Olympics gives, but also a wonderful opportunity to grow the game beyond its traditional universe and go to a far broader orbit."

Despite the number of high profile absentees, the sponsorship boss believes there is still great potential for global growth through Olympic inclusion. This is a key indicator for the IOC as they consider which sports to retain beyond Tokyo when they meet next year.

He said if a Chinese golfer was to win a medal in Rio, "the fact that not many people in China necessarily know who Rory McIlroy is, or anyone else, but they would see a Chinese person doing well, and that will have a far more significant effect for the sport in China than anything an international player would have".

"Sometimes sports and sports people can fall into the danger that the universe they live in is the only universe," he added.

Lee-Anne Pace
Lee-Anne Pace won the Ladies European Tour Order of Merit in 2010

Only one player, South Africa's Lee Anne Pace, has so far withdrawn from the women's tournament. Morgan, whose sponsorship empire stretches into the LPGA Tour, believes the female game has a stronger grasp of how to capitalise on Olympic inclusion.

"These women really understand their responsibility to their sport and to the commercial partners," he said.

"In this case they understand their responsibility to growing the game of golf. I'm hoping the women's version at the Olympic Games will help carry golf forward.

"Golf has to fight hard in the 21st century to remain relevant, to remain attractive and focused in on the markets where more and more sports are challenging," he added.

Jason Day
World number one Jason Day is among those who have withdrawn from Rio because of concerns over Zika

To accommodate the Rio dates golf faces chaotic scheduling. This month the Open and US PGA are played with only one week between the two majors and the second of those clashes with the Women's British Open at Woburn.

"At the moment there is a little bit of muddle," Morgan said. "I think the Olympics has put some challenges to the players and people don't know the ebb and flow of the calendar.

"It is evolving and I think sooner rather than later the sport needs to figure out it's own calendar for the good of the general public."

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