Golf's great Olympic divide

A little more than three months before the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, there is a major difference between how the world's top male golfers are approaching their sport's return to the Games after 112 years and how the world's top female golfers are approaching the event.

An enthusiasm gap exists, to say the least. At the end of a month in which two highly ranked men, including a total of four male major champions took themselves out of Olympic consideration, you could argue it's more of a gulf than a gap.

Adam Scott, who is ranked seventh in the world and is the current FedEx Cup standings leader on the PGA Tour, Louis Oosthuizen (No. 13), Hall of Famer Vijay Singh and former Masters champion Charl Schwartzel (No. 20) said they would not be part of the 60-man field for which they were very likely to qualify.

"I tend to think there's such intensity in the PGA Tour's competitive schedule and how people schedule themselves that they kind of see it as another golf tournament," said Judy Rankin, a former LPGA star and current Golf Channel analyst. "Where there is no doubt these young women are seeing it as a very special opportunity to represent their country."

In contrast to the four male major champions who won't be in Rio, so far no leading female golfers have announced that they won't compete, even though their summer schedules are about as jam-packed as the men's.

"The Olympics is something that I've looked forward to my entire life," said Canadian teenager Brooke Henderson, No. 5 in the world on the Rolex Rankings. "As a young girl, I wanted to play, and I remember watching the Winter and Summer Games and watching the athletes -- the passion, the desire, the hard work they put in. I wanted to be one of those athletes. I didn't know what sport."

Top-ranked American Lexi Thompson shares similar beliefs.

"Once I found out golf was back in the Olympics, that was my No. 1 goal, to be on that team," said Thompson, currently ranked No. 3 in the world.

The Olympics, according to Scott, should be for amateurs. He had downplayed Olympic golf for months, contending it was an unnecessary addition to the professional game's crowded landscape, whose major championships are a proven pinnacle of achievement.

Oosthuizen, who won the 2010 Open Championship at St. Andrews, cited scheduling and family issues. Singh was the only one of the four golfers to publicly cite the Zika virus as part of his reason for not playing. The virus, which is spread through mosquito bites and can also be transmitted through sex, has been an issue in Brazil for months, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently said there are definitive links between the virus and birth defects in infants.

Golf's return to the Olympics was announced in 2009. Although all of the sport's governing bodies embraced Olympic golf and lobbied hard for its inclusion in a 21st century Games -- particularly because of the Olympics' potential to offer global exposure for the game, including in countries where golf is unfamiliar -- LPGA players and officials have been consistent boosters.

It is a mindset that goes back two decades, when there was talk of a golf competition at Augusta National Golf Club in the 1996 Summer Olympics -- a proposal that ultimately didn't pan out.

"When this came up in my time at the LPGA, [the tour] was very enthusiastic because they saw the platform being so outsized as anything else they do around the world," said Ty Votaw, then an LPGA administrator and later its commissioner. He is currently chief marketing officer of the PGA Tour. "And that's going to continue to be the case with this Olympics."

Current LPGA commissioner Mike Whan, who has overseen an increasingly worldwide schedule for the top women's tour since taking the job in 2010, has been bullish on the Games.

"I think the Olympics gives us an opportunity to throw the boundaries of women's golf into hyperspace because I think there are a lot more countries and people in other countries who will get a look at what we're all about," Whan said last year.

Count Annika Sorenstam in Whan's corner, as the Hall of Famer believes players have an obligation to support Olympic golf.

"We have to think for the future, the next generation, how do we grow the game globally," Sorenstam said. "Sometimes it's not about the next major or what you are on the money list or how important this is for you -- it's how important it is for the game. Maybe this really didn't fit your schedule, maybe this is a pain in the butt for you, but long term, we have to reach the places that don't even know what golf is. I think we have that responsibility."

Asked about the indifference of some golfers toward the Olympics, Gary Player, who will captain the South African team, was blunt.

"People who are not excited to play in the Olympics have just been spoiled," the nine-time major champion said. "They've been spoiled rotten. The honor of playing in the biggest sporting event on the planet -- you should be honored to have the opportunity."

That is certainly the attitude being taken by female golfers from South Korea, who feel the pressure of making the Olympic team. Eight Koreans are among the top 15 in the world, but only four can qualify for the Games. So Yeon Ryu needs to pass two of her countrywomen by the July 11 qualifying deadline.

"The Olympics are really important and absolutely I want to play, but these days it's just driving me crazy," Ryu said of the intense scrutiny in her homeland. "If I deserve [to qualify], then I am going to play [in the] Olympics. I really am trying to focus on me rather than the [chase for an Olympic spot].

Korean media [believes if] someone makes the Olympics, they're a great player, and if somebody cannot make it, they're a really bad player."

There seems to be some parallel between golf's return to the Olympics in 2016 and when tennis returned in the 1988 Olympics after a 64-year absence. Many top-ranked male players -- including Ivan Lendl, Boris Becker and Jimmy Connors -- did not play in Seoul, while most of the best women participated. No. 1 Steffi Graf won women's singles, adding a gold medal to her sweep of the Grand Slam events that year, and has said the Olympic experience was one of the highlights of her sterling career.

"Tennis got back in [the Olympics] and Pete Sampras never went to play," said International Golf Federation president Peter Dawson, former chief executive of the R&A. "Yet now, you watch Andy Murray or Roger Federer and how hard they're trying to win a gold medal. It's changed. I think that'll happen in golf, and I think it'll happen quicker in golf. It's early.

"I think people who have grown up with the four [golf] majors will have a different view than people born now coming into a world where golf is in the Olympics. In a generation's time, I think it'll be very different."

Currently vice president of the IGF, Votaw coordinated the Olympic golf movement for the organization. He concurs with Dawson about a generational difference.

"Players who have come on tour since 2009 have known this is on the horizon versus those who have been on tour for many years and never had the Olympics," Votaw said. "These young players know the Olympics is part of their landscape -- they embrace it, talk about it, love it -- and are the most enthusiastic about it."

That seemed to describe top-ranked American Jordan Spieth's Olympic stance.

"I think we're going to approach it as a fifth major and we're going to prepare like it is," the 22-year-old told reporters at the Australian Open late last year. "I'm going to go down there and try and take care of business."