How Zika virus lets golfers off hook for wanting to skip Rio Olympics

Here's where the problem with reintroducing golf into the Olympic Games started: The powers that be who saw the benefits of the sport's return after 112 years away -- from the innocence of growing the game globally to the self-indulgence of attempting to infuse the industry financially -- informally surveyed the game's elite players about which format would best suit their tastes.

Not the most creative bunch, the players answered that they'd like a 72-hole stroke-play format that sounds exactly like almost every other tournament on the schedule. Once it was approved by the IOC, there was no going back.

But letting players pick such a common format meant that Olympic golf instantly felt less special than it should have. It felt like just another "important" tourney in a summer swimming with them, only this one would be contested at a brand-new, faraway venue with no money at stake. Go ahead and try to get your favorite multimillionaire to do a week's worth of pro bono work and see how that goes over.

Little by little, the players publicly recited the right words while privately questioning their own motives. Rickie Fowler might have said it best last year when asked about his Olympic goals: "It would be a dream come true [that] I haven't ever dreamed of."

Unlike swimmers or runners or gymnasts -- athletes who'd worked their entire lives to compete in the pinnacle of their sports -- golfers were not raised with this mentality. No, they'd worked to earn a green jacket or a Claret Jug someday, not a gold medal.

All of which is why, in a game of honor between the ropes, these players were suddenly seeking loopholes.

Use the excuse that it's a crowded schedule and the Olympics are an unnecessary detour from their overall goals, and they'll be criticized for a me-first attitude. Explain that competing in another no-money event (in addition to the Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup) is unfair, and they'll be ripped for greediness. Suggest that playing once per year for one's country should be enough, and they'll be castigated for a lack of patriotism. Contend that traveling to a country with an increasingly unstable government is a poor personal choice, and they'll be tsk-tsked for eschewing private resort accommodations.

And then along came the Zika virus.

It became the perfect get-out-of-jail-free card for professional golfers. Medical experts have insisted that there is minimal risk of contracting the virus in Rio de Janeiro during the Olympic fortnight, but it's impossible to denounce a player's decision to skip the tournament over concerns on the long-term welfare of his family.

On Tuesday, Australia's Jason Day became the latest elite-level player to withdraw his name from Olympic consideration (well, until a few hours later, when Ireland's Shane Lowry also removed his hat from the ring). In a statement, Day listed his reason for pulling out as concern over transmission of Zika. For a player with a young family who might want to have more children in the future, that's a legitimate worry, no matter how low the odds of contracting the virus.

Even those without young families are given a free pass. Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy withdrew last week, citing the same concern. It shouldn't matter that McIlroy isn't married and doesn't have children; he might want to begin that process in the near future, and nobody else should tell him to risk that for the chance at a gold medal.

The truth, though, is that Zika has become an all-purpose excuse. Whether the virus is 99 percent of a player's real reason for skipping the Games or whether that number is really much lower, it provides a handy cover for all concerns -- the unstable local government, the tightly packed schedule, the no-money tournament right in the middle of the summer.

Don't believe that? Think of it this way: If there were a slight chance of contracting the virus in Augusta, Georgia, every April, the Masters wouldn't suffer from nearly as high a withdrawal rate as the Olympics.

Even if golf's inclusion in the Olympics is novel, the fact that its best players are eschewing the festivities isn't. The same thing also happened back in 1904, the last time the sport featured in the Games.

"The entries for the Olympic championship were rather disappointing, particularly so in those from the East," wrote Crafts W. Higgins in The Golfers' Magazine of the event played at Glen Echo Country Club, just outside of St. Louis. "The known apathy of New Yorkers for any Western event should have been taken into consideration."

As a result, the gold medal was captured by George S. Lyon, a 46-year-old Canadian who'd been playing the game for less than a decade, had a gnarly case of hay fever and spent his working days as an insurance salesman. Though history won't repeat itself to that extent this summer, the "known apathy" of potential competitors should have been taken into consideration.

It all stems from the format -- while it was hardly a death knell for Olympic golf, it was the catalyst that started the chain reaction that led to so many top players failing to buy into the concept.

Now the dominoes are continuing to fall. With each withdrawal, the event loses more luster; the focus lingers more on those who aren't competing than those who remain committed. The initial intention was that golf's return to the Olympics would shine a brighter spotlight on the world's best players, helping to grow the game globally. So far, that isn't happening.

There's still time, though. The IOC is already committed to bringing golf back for the 2020 Summer Games in Japan. The first order of business for golf's powers that be should be making the competition feel more special. Maybe then, the dominoes will start to fall in the right direction.