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Olympic golf returns after 112 years at a critical time for the sport

On Thursday morning in Rio, golf returned to the Olympics for the first time in 112 years. It is a return mired in controversy and discord, and some see it as a crucial opportunity for the future of the sport.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted back in 2009 to bring back men’s and women’s golf for the 2016 and 2020 Summer Games, which means that regardless of what happens in Rio, golf will be back for Tokyo. Its status beyond 2020 is less certain.

Earlier this summer, a rush of top golfers all dropped out of the Olympics in a hurry—nearly 20 of them in just four months, including the top four golfers in the world: Jason Day (Australia), Dustin Johnson (USA), Jordan Spieth (USA) and Rory McIlroy (Ireland).

The top-ranked golfer to compete in Rio will be Henrik Stenson, No. 5 in the world, who just won the British Open last month. The American squad consists of Bubba Watson, Rickie Fowler, Patrick Reed, and Matt Kuchar.

Many of the golfers who declined to go to Rio cited concerns about the Zika virus, but not all of them, and the consensus in the golf world was that Zika wasn’t the only reason not to go, and for many, not the true reason at all. Rather, many believe that top golfers simply weren’t interested in playing at the Olympics.

That may sound strange—what athlete wouldn’t want to go to the Olympics? But consider this: Golfers won’t be paid for going; the PGA Tour schedule is packed with lucrative tournaments just before and after the Olympics; the structure for Olympic golf is no different from any other PGA Tour event or Major (72 holes, individual play), which many fans find disappointing; PGA Tour events are already international competitions, with golfers from every country; and this year’s Olympics are in a city with far more problems than just Zika, from crime to pollution to lodging problems. It’s not shocking that so many golfers would pass on the opportunity.

Dueling stories at Golf Magazine make the case for and against Olympic golf. ESPN radio host Mike Greenberg railed on his show, “There is absolutely no earthly reason that golf should be an Olympic sport. There is not a single player in the world who would sooner win Olympic gold in golf than one of the Majors or frankly, probably any of the other events on the PGA Tour.” SportsCenter anchor Scott Van Pelt called Olympic golf “a disaster.” And Rory McIlroy himself, in an already infamous press conference, said bluntly that he won’t even watch the event on television.

Golf is struggling. It is not by any means dead—don’t believe it when you see that written. Rounds of golf played in America were up 1.8% for 2015, according to the National Golf Foundation. It was the first year of growth since 2012. Rounds played were up 3% this year as of June. This is an encouraging data point.

But on the business side, companies appear to be fleeing. Adidas is looking to sell off TaylorMade, the equipment maker it acquired in 1997 that was, for many years, the No. 1 club manufacturer. Nike announced this month it will completely halt its golf equipment business as well, leaving only footwear and apparel. (Nike Golf had an 8% sales drop last year.) Just like that, there will soon be no one using Nike or Adidas golf clubs. Another club-maker, Golfsmith, is considering filing for bankruptcy. Callaway is the only publicly traded company left that makes clubs, and Callaway’s profit fell last year compared to 2014, which was its first profitable year since 2008.

Golf’s governing bodies are hoping that the global exposure of the Olympics can help turn things around. When McIlroy dropped out, the International Golf Federation felt compelled to put out a chiding statement saying, “The IGF is disappointed with Rory’s decision… As we have stated before, the Olympics is the world’s greatest celebration of sport and we remain excited about golf’s return after a 112-year absence.”

And veteran golfers have similar high hopes. Tiger Woods tweeted that he will be “cheering hard for Team USA.” Gary Player, the sport’s most enthusiastic global ambassador, is on site as the captain of the South Africa team. Jack Nicklaus has been an outspoken supporter of Olympic golf. “What I’m concerned about is that golf has a little bit of momentum going right now,” he said. “If the guys don’t want to participate, then we might not be in the Olympics after this. They vote next year. And if they vote to keep golf in, then that’s great, but if not then we lose that momentum with growing the game.”

That’s a phrase you hear a lot from people in and around golf: “growing the game.” It is an important step in returning golf to the heights it once occupied, in terms of popularity and sales. McIlroy, in his controversial comments, said he “didn’t get into golf to grow the game.”

That’s fair. But once the IOC tapped golf to return, it became the collective responsibility of the sport’s best players, some argue, to show up. If the biggest stars aren’t there, how can it attract attention and generate buzz, and, most important of all, lure completely new fans to the sport?

To be sure, there are positive reports from Rio about the course and the golfers. Those who chose to go appear to be having fun, rooting on their countrymen in other sports, and showing good spirit. Matt Kuchar, for one, thinks Olympic golf “will be a winner” and that it will stick around past 2020. Many doubt it.

Olympic golf at Rio will be a test—not just for Tokyo, but for the popularity of golf in America, well beyond 2020.

Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite. Sportsbook is our recurring sports business video series.

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