Pádraig Harrington insists “it would be a huge honour” to represent Ireland in Rio after Graeme McDowell turned down the chance to step in for world No 4 Rory McIlroy in Ireland’s continuing game of Olympic musical chairs.
With four-time major winner McIlroy making himself unavailable because he fears contracting the Zika virus, McDowell was next in line to join world No 25 Shane Lowry in Brazil.
However, McDowell has also turned down the trip as his wants to be near his wife Kristin, who is due give birth to the couple’s second child shortly after the Games, on August 25.
The good news for the Olympic golf movement is that Harrington, one of the players who was at the forefront of the International Golf Federation’s (IGF) bid to have golf reinstated as an Olympic sport, is on track to achieve him dream of becoming and Olympian.
“Based on the current ranking points I am next in line for automatic selection to the Irish Olympic Team for Rio 2016,” world No 167 Harrington said in an Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI) statement on McDowell’s decision.
The 44-year old Dubliner added: “I will work very hard over the next few weeks to achieve this selection as it would be a huge honour for me to represent Ireland at the Olympic Games, having played an active role in golf’s bid to be re-included in the Olympic Games programme.”
True to his word, Harrington opened with a five under par 66 to share fourth place, three shots behind Korea’s Sang-Hyun Pak, in the ISPS HANDA Global Cup on the Japan Golf Tour.
Harrington was one of four golfers who helped the IGF address the IOC in Copenhagen in 2009 alongside Suzanne Pettersen, Matteo Manassero and Michelle Wie.
Speaking in the Danish capital in 2009, Harrington said: “It's seven years away but physically I should be capable of continuing for a number of years. Competing in the Olympics gives me the motivation to push on - I want to be there in 2016.
“Being an Olympian is a big deal in Ireland, one of the greatest honours for any Irish person, and I want to be one.”
As for McDowell, he also issued a statement on his reasons for turning down the chance to win an Olympic gold medal for Ireland from August 11-14.
“I woke yesterday morning to the news that Rory McIlroy had withdrawn from the Irish Olympic Golf team, putting me next in line for an automatic spot on the team,” McDowell said
“As many within golf will know my wife Kristin is pregnant and is due to have our second child just a couple of weeks after the Olympic Golf competition concludes.
“I made the decision many months ago, before I was on the Team, that I would not play or travel outside the US, where my family and I live, in the weeks running up to the birth.
"Unfortunately I will therefore not be available to replace Rory on the team. I have informed Paul McGinley and the Olympic Council of Ireland of my decision.
“I’ve always been a proud member of Ireland’s golf teams, from my amateur career through to playing in four World Cups of Golf for Ireland and I wish the Irish Olympic Team the very best of luck in Rio.”
Both the OCI and the IGF issued statements commenting on the latest big name defection after McIlroy, Australians Adam Scott and Marc Leishman, Fiji’s Vijay Singh and South Africans Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen.
“We recognise the unique circumstances for Graeme and his family and, while we are disappointed that he is not available for the Olympic Games, we sympathise with his position,” the IGF, the governing body for Olympic golf said.
“There are many considerations for players but those who compete will have the opportunity to be part of a truly global celebration of sport.”
The OCI said it respected McDowell’s decision, adding: “It is important to re-emphasise that Graeme’s decision was taken for personal reasons as Rio 2016 is a matter of weeks before the birth of his, and his wife Kristin Stape’s, second child.
“This now presents a significant opportunity for another talented Irish golfer to represent his country and participate in golf’s historic return to the Olympic Games after a 112-year absence.
“In particular, we are very fortunate to have a global star in Pádraig Harrington who is now in contention for automatic selection for Rio 2016.”
Lowry has said nothing publicly since the McIlroy decision and his management company did not immediately reply to requests for an update on his intentions, especially given McIlroy’s fears about Zika.
"I desperately want to go to the Olympics for Ireland," he wrote in his weekly newspaper column last month. “I am also a recently married man, and I have to learn a lot more about the virus. Obviously I really want to go, but there is a decision to be made. Can I or can't I go?"
Paul McGinley, Ireland’s team leader for golf, gave no indication earlier this week that Lowry was thinking of pulling out.
Waterford’s Seamus Power, currently in position to graduate to the PGA Tour from the Web.com Tour, is next in line to compete in Rio should Lowry or Harrington become unavailable before the Monday, July 11 qualifying deadline
Amateur Leona Maguire is the lone women’s representative though US-based Stephanie Meadow can still make it if she produces some good results over the next three weeks.