RIO DE JANEIRO – Rickie Fowler’s postcards from Rio have come with a not-so-subtle message to those who chose not to make the trip to this year’s Olympics.
There have been the regular posts to social media – Rickie hanging with Michael Phelps during the Opening Ceremony, Rickie holed up in the athlete’s village with the U.S. diving team, Rickie smiling for the cameras as he learns his way around the Olympic Golf Course.
And then there have been his less public attempts to dig the needle a little deeper into those who opted out of an Olympic start.
Although he didn’t give specifics, Fowler left little room for interpretation on Tuesday during the U.S. team’s press conference, suggesting he’s been in regular contact with those who skipped golf’s return to the Games after a 112-year hiatus.
“As far as making guys jealous back home, I feel like I’m doing a pretty good job of it and there may be some personal messages sent back and forth and I’m telling them we’re definitely having a good time down here,” Fowler said.
Active minds can envision text messages to Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson, the top two Americans in the World Golf Ranking who withdrew their names from Olympic consideration, with lines like, “You’re missing it” and “This place is off the hook.”
Fowler has been in Brazil the longest of the Americans, having arrived last week to participate in the Opening Ceremony and embrace the full Olympic experience, but his U.S. condo-mates offered a similar message on Tuesday.
“Just having the opportunity to play and be part of helping to grow the game is huge,” Patrick Reed said. “When people turn on the TV to watch sports the one event where they can see almost all the top athletes is the Olympics.
“To have golf back in the Olympics is just going to help the game. There were some reasons the guys felt they shouldn’t come here, but any time there’s a reason to put on the stars and stripes I’m going to do it.”
That’s a long drive from the message Rory McIlroy offered last month when he announced he would be skipping the Olympics.
“I didn't get into golf to try and grow the game. I got into golf to win championships and win major championships, and all of a sudden you get to this point and there is a responsibility on you to grow the game, and I get that,” McIlroy said at The Open. “But at the same time that's not the reason that I got into golf. I got into golf to win.”
To be fair, this wasn’t an exercise in finger pointing or Monday morning quarterbacking. The four Americans who will play in this week’s event didn’t seem entirely comfortable with the topic of golf’s AWOL athletes, but nonetheless had a message for those passed on the opportunity.
Every player who made the decision to skip the Games did so for their own reasons, which were mostly concerns over the Zika virus, and hindsight can often be an utterly unfair judge and jury.
For those who did make the trip to Rio, however, the crowded reality has been much different than the picture that had been painted.
Matt Kuchar, who earned his spot in the field when Spieth and Johnson withdrew, spent Monday playing “tourist” with his wife and watching Round 4 of the table tennis competition; and Reed planned to attend Tuesday’s swimming events.
Bubba Watson was desperately trying to land tickets to the handball competition, all of which seems to dismiss any preconceived security concerns.
As for Zika, Reed had a refreshingly straightforward approach to what has become an issue well beyond the warm confines of South America and the Caribbean.
“I live in Houston, I have lived in San Antonio, I’ve always used bug spray, it’s nothing new,” Reed said. “Being an outdoor sport there are three things you have to do, wear sunscreen, wear bug spray and you have to hydrate.”
The U.S. foursome weren’t second-guessing the decision made by some of the game’s top players to not participate this week – that would be bad form and unfair. Instead, each told a similar tale of conviction.
Representing your country, be it at a Ryder Cup or the Olympics, transcends the historic motivations of individual accomplishment, and if some failed to see the big picture through the fog of uncertainty it’s as understandable as it is unfortunate.
“Growing up all we dreamed about was the majors, but I remember watching the Olympics and wishing I had the chance to go play for a gold medal,” Reed said.
Whether Spieth, Johnson, McIlroy and world No. 1 Jason Day will spend the next few days wistfully eyeing the competition from Rio will probably remain a mystery. Golf is, by design, a sport that demands a healthy dose of competitive amnesia; and Fowler’s regular reminders from Rio will probably serve as little more than good-natured ribbing.
Criticizing the players who sidestepped the Games has always carried an air of arrogance, as if those judging from outside should somehow know better; and ultimately the would-be Olympians are the ultimate arbiters of right or wrong.
But for those who did make the trip to Rio, who embraced the Games and all of the experiences that come with being an Olympic athlete, however quirky that may sometimes be, that choice has already been validated.
“There were funny circumstances this year that led guys to not participate. I think they will regret it,” Kuchar said. “After this year’s event I think it’s going to be a big success.”