Team leader Paul McGinley refused to criticise Shane Lowry for playing the Zika virus card and joining Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell in turning down a chance to go for Olympic gold in Rio.
The return of golf to the Games after a 112-year absence is looking increasingly farcical after recently married Lowry followed world number one Jason Day yesterday in announcing he was making himself unavailable for Brazil.
Just two hours after Day said he would also be joining fellow Australians Adam Scott and Marc Leishman on the sidelines, Lowry spoke in a statement of his “anguish” at being forced to give up on his Olympic medal dream over his Zika virus fears.
But with few athletes from other sports withdrawing over the Zika virus and with the women’s golf stars remaining committed, the decision of 12 high profile stars from the men’s game not to travel to Brazil is a PR disaster for the men’s game and Olympic golf.
“It doesn’t reflect well on men’s golf, does it?” McGinley admitted.
But as he said when McIlroy and McDowell also cited Zika as their reason for not travelling, McGinley refused to second guess Lowry or try to persuade him to change his mind when the bad news phone call came from Akron yesterday.
“When an individual takes a decision for personal reasons, I don’t think it is my job or my duty or my right to try to convince him,” McGinley said. “He discussed this with his wife Wendy and they have come to this decision and we and the Olympic Council of Ireland, respect that decision.”
Lowry too had been hugely enthusiastic about competing in Rio until fears over Zika escalated amongst the top golfers in recent weeks and he hinted last month that he was considering all options.
Day joined compatriots Scott and Leishman, South Africans Charl Schwartzel, Branden Grace and Louis Oosthuizen, Fiji’s Vijay Singh, New Zealand’s Tim Wilkinson and Ireland’s top trio in withdrawing his name from consideration.
"The sole reason for my decision is my concerns about the possible transmission of the Zika virus and the potential risks that it may present to my wife's future pregnancies and to future members of our family," Day said in a statement. "I have always placed my family in front of everything else in my life."
The 28-year-old Australian and his wife, Ellie, had their second child in November, and he has said they want more children.
Lowry’s statement came shortly afterwards, citing the same fears and his intention of starting a family.
“It is with a very heavy heart that I have had to make the decision over the past couple of days to withdraw from the upcoming Olympic games this August,” Lowry said in a statement.
“Myself and my management team have been closely monitoring the Zika virus situation in South America for the past number of months, but based on a number of consultations with leading medical experts in recent days, I feel that I would be putting my family’s health at risk by being in Brazil at the current time.
“Wendy and I have just recently been married and we hope to be lucky enough to have a family in the near future. Based on these circumstances, I have received firm medical advice that I should not travel to Rio this summer.
“I have not taken this decision lightly and it has been a source of much anguish for me over the past week. I am a very proud Irishman and I love my country.
“Hence, I was really looking forward to walking out behind the Tricolour with the rest of the Irish Olympic team in Rio.
“While I am bitterly disappointed to be missing out on that experience and the opportunity to win an Olympic medal for Ireland, on this occasion I have to put my family’s welfare first.”
The loss of US Open runner up Lowry, hot on the heels of McIlroy and McDowell, is a major blow to Ireand’s hopes of a medal with 44-year old Padraig Harrington looking likely to be joined by Waterford’s Seamus Power, who is set to graduate to the PGA Tour via the Web.com Tour.
“I don’t care what sport you play,” 29-year old Power said from his US base. “It would be an achievement to win an Olympic medal and this is a once in a lifetime opportunity I wouldn’t pass up.”
For McGinley, the loss of Lowry is a blow, though he later expressed the hope that Harrington could be an inspiration to the entire irish expedition.
“It is obviously a disappointment from an Irish perspective that we have lost two of the favourites in Rory and Shane and then Graeme McDowell - three world class players,” McGinley said.
“For a little country like ours it would have been great to go there as one of the favourites in a very difficult sport like golf.
“But we move on. I think Padraig will be a tremendous addition not just to the golf team but to the irish team in general.
“Being around the athletes, supporting the other athletes, his personality, his gravitas as a sports person particularly in Ireland will reflect well on all of the Irish athletes.
“As Irish people we are normally very good when we are underdogs. And you never know, this might work to our advantage.”
Ranked 283rd in the world, Power would qualify for the 60-man Olympic competition if the team were picked today though Paul Dunne or Michael Hoey could still overtake him before the July 11 deadline with big performances in the Open de France or the Scottish Open over the next fortnight
Keeping his fingers crossed that he gets to make his second trip of the year to Brazil, where he played on the Web.com Tour in early April, Power said: “I am not really concerned about Zika.
“I am in a different position in that I don’t have any immediate plans to have kids or anything. Plus I have been in Brazil already this year and I know the lie of the land.
“When you get there, the talk of Zika is not nearly at the same scale as some of the media outlets would lead you to believe. I have no concerns anyway. I would definitely go.”