Rory McIlroy is among the golfers who puts the Olympics below the level of the four majors, but he thinks the sport’s popularity at the Games has potential.
“As things stand, Rio promises to be a great experience,” McIlroy said last week, according to the Irish Independent. “Golf will need to be back in the Olympics for a while, however, before it becomes a bigger event for us, as has been the case with tennis.
“Though I’d love to win Olympic gold, it’s not as if we’re going to get the full buzz of the event like the athletes will over a span of three weeks after preparing for four years. We golfers will be in and out in a week.”
McIlroy, 26 and of Northern Ireland, announced in June that he would represent Ireland rather than Great Britain at the Rio Olympics, golf’s return to the Games after a 112-year absence.
He is ranked No. 3 in the world and is all but assured of earning a spot in the 60-man Olympic field come the July 11 rankings cutoff date.
McIlroy has Olympic tennis experience, as a spectator. He attended the London 2012 Games to watch then-girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki play for Denmark and even visited the athletes’ village.
Tennis returned to the Olympics as a medal sport in 1988 for the first time since 1924, but several top players missed the event at Seoul 1988, Barcelona 1992, Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000 for various reasons and not just injuries.
At least two top-three singles players missed the Olympics each of those years.
Missing stars included Mats Wilander, Ivan Lendl, Andre Agassi, Boris Becker and Martina Navratilova in 1988, Monica Seles and Navratilova in 1992, Pete Sampras and Steffi Graf in 1996 and Sampras and Martina Hingis in 2000.
The tennis turnout improved starting at Athens 2004, with five of the top six men and the top three women competing.
In 2008, the top eight men and the top three women showed up to Beijing (though No. 1 Ana Ivanovic withdrew on site due to a thumb injury).
In 2012, 18 of the men’s and women’s top-10 players competed on the lawns of Wimbledon.
For Rio, there have been no widespread reports of any of the current men’s or women’s top-five golfers questioning whether they would compete at the Olympics.
“Not to play? It would have been a very selfish decision,” McIlroy said in June. “It wouldn’t have been good for the game of golf at all. If we as a golf community want golf to succeed in the Olympics, you need to have your best players playing. I realized that pretty quickly. Obviously it was an option, but was it ever going to be an option that I would decide to choose; no.”