Jeff Shain

Olympian task: Who wants to carry golf’s tattered banner in Rio?

jkarr@islandpacket.com

You have the honor, Jordan Spieth. You too, Dustin Johnson.

That is, if you still want it.

World No. 1 Jason Day became the latest to join the exodus from golf’s return to the Olympic stage Thursday, following Rory McIlroy to the sideline as two-thirds of golf’s modern “Big 3” now will stay home from Rio de Janeiro.

Or maybe we ought to rebrand it as the “Big 4,” with Johnson now a U.S. Open champion and currently ranked higher than McIlroy.

Hey, it can’t hurt. The Rio effort needs as many drawing cards as possible — at least enough to keep the spotlight on who is playing rather than who isn’t. And why.

“The reason for my decision is my concerns about the possible transmission of the Zika virus and the potential risks that it may present,” Day said in a lengthy statement.

“Medical experts have confirmed that while perhaps slight, a decision to compete in Rio absolutely comes with health risks to me and to my family.”

Seven years of groundwork to convince the International Olympic Committee to put golf back on the program for the first time since 1904. Six more years of headaches and Brazilian red tape to build a premier course in a host city that previously had only two 18-hole layouts to its name.

All not-so-slowly unraveling in front of the eyes of golf’s top brass.

Australia once offered a stout 1-2 punch of Day and Adam Scott. Now those berths fall to Scott Hend and Marcus Fraser. South Africa promised some combo of RBC Heritage champion Branden Grace and former major winners Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel. Now they’ll send Jaco Van Zyl and Brandon Stone.

Does Gary Player have any eligibility? He’ll travel anywhere.

The question is whether Spieth and DJ will.

Not that guys like Bubba Watson, Henrik Stenson and Masters champion Danny Willett don’t generate a certain buzz, but they don’t possess the star power of Spieth and Johnson.

Right now, the tattered Olympic banner is theirs to carry, and the IOC is watching. Golf does not have a guaranteed place beyond the 2020 Games in Tokyo.

“Once they’ve got in, they have got to deliver,” said Barry Maister, an IOC member from New Zealand. “Just getting in with your name, and then putting up some second- or third-rate players, is so far from the Olympic ideal.”

Then again, so is a host city beset with filthy waterways, unpaid police, unfinished transportation and a corruption probe. But that’s another rant. For golf, it’s all about the mosquitoes.

Zika, linked to severe birth defects in pregnant women, is transmitted by mosquitoes that carry the virus from an infected person to someone not infected. The virus also can spread via sexual contact, which puts wives and girlfriends at risk even if they don’t travel to Brazil.

Health experts say Zika typically disappears from the body in five to seven days, so the condition certainly isn’t permanent. The problem is that in four out of five cases, the infected person doesn’t even know he has the virus.

Hence the skittishness on the part of PGA Tour pros.

Day already has two young children and doesn’t intend to stop there. Shane Lowry, the U.S. Open runner-up who also dropped out Tuesday, recently got married and is looking to start a family. Grace is getting married this fall and presumably wants to do newlywed things. Ditto for McIlroy, though his wedding date is less certain.

It’s tough to fault any of them for that. Nor does it help that Brazil is considered the hardest-hit of the Zika nations, and their sport requires them to commune with nature for four-hour rounds. Or that the Olympics comes at the end of a seven-week stretch that jets from Ohio to Scotland to New Jersey to Brazil.

Three words: Weakened immune system.

Here’s the irony, though — the Rio dropout rate for the LPGA is zero. Not one.

That isn’t to say players don’t have concerns. But either the LPGA has far more assuring medical advisers or the women are simply more attuned to what an Olympic gold medal would mean for their side of the sport.

“We have 20 opportunities to win a major championship every four years,” said Stacy Lewis, twice the LPGA’s Player of the Year. “You have one opportunity to win an Olympic medal in four years. So if that doesn’t make it special, then I don’t know what it is.”

In kind of a reverse-logic sort of way, there may be another underlying reason why the LPGA’s best might not be so concerned about the effects of Zika.

“I don’t plan to get pregnant in the near future,” Germany’s Sandra Gal told Global Golf Post. “Those women who do, I am concerned for them but not for myself.”

Consider that New Zealand’s Lydia Ko, currently atop the women’s rankings, just turned 19 two months ago. No. 2 Brooke Henderson of Canada is 18. Lexi Thompson, the top American at No. 4, is a ripe old 21. It’s fair to suggest none of them are thinking of starting a family soon.

“Growing up, I couldn’t say that I wanted to be an Olympian,” Thompson said. “Now that I can, it’s quite an honor.”

Those comments sound awfully similar to words from Spieth, who has gushed about the chance to walk in the opening ceremony and be among other Olympians. You can hear them yourself in Olympic promos running on NBC and Golf Channel.

It’s still six weeks to Rio, though. And a lot can change in six weeks.

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