News & Opinion

Dustin Johnson shortchanges Olympic golf

When American star declined interest in Tokyo Games, reportedly to focus on PGA Tour playoffs, what he really meant was that he won’t play without a big payday

The news came and went without a great deal of conversation, perhaps owing to the attitude the golf world has about the Olympics, but when American Dustin Johnson decided he wouldn’t compete in the Tokyo Games in July, someone should have said something.

Especially when his agent gave the reason: Johnson wanted to prepare for the FedEx Cup playoffs that begin in August. The PGA Tour certainly would have been happy to hear that Johnson thinks the FedEx Cup is more important than the Olympics, but you just have to wonder what he was thinking, something of which he seems to do precious little.

Saudi International 2020
Dustin Johnson, who played in the Saudi International for a reported 7-figure appearance fee earlier this season, will skip the Olympic Games this summer.

If Michael Phelps had announced that he would be skipping the Olympics to participate in the big-money International Swimming League, the sports world would have turned itself inside out, and Phelps would have been rightly hammered for it.

Johnson, who is No. 5 in the world, also skipped the 2016 Olympics at Rio de Janeiro, using concerns about the mosquito-borne Zika virus, an excuse that Rory McIlroy – who begged out of Rio for the same reason – said afterward was nothing more than lame.

“At the end of the day, it’s a matter of personal preference and priority,” David Winkle, Johnson’s agent, wrote in an email to Golfweek. “As much as he would be honored to be an Olympian, the FedEx Cup Playoffs are also very important to him.

“Having had a few close calls in the Playoffs, he really wants to win them before his time is done and feels that he wouldn’t be giving himself the best opportunity to do so if he added a lengthy international trip just prior to their beginning (and shortly after returning from two weeks in Europe).”

That statement makes one thing remarkably clear: the Olympics don’t come with a payday, and Johnson cares more about money than he does competing for his country in one of the world’s premier sporting events.

Perhaps it’s because golf has practically no history with the Olympics. Today’s players didn’t grow up with the Olympics as a goal, the way athletes in other sports have. Some professional golfers might not think a gold medal is all that big of a deal in the same way gymnasts or track athletes or swimmers or skaters do.

Those players should talk to England’s Justin Rose, who won the gold medal at the 2016 Games in Brazil. It’s safe to say that no Olympic athlete is prouder of his medal than Rose. He carries it with him seemingly everywhere he travels and never hesitates to show it off, even without being asked.

There are more important things than money, which is anathema to professional golfers. And how much money is enough? Johnson, 35, a 20-time winner on the PGA Tour, has made more than $62 million in official prize money on the Tour. And that doesn’t include the millions more that he has made from endorsements and European Tour appearance fees.

Johnson wouldn’t have to make another dime from golf and he’d be fabulously wealthy for the rest of his life. But it’s somehow ingrained in Tour players that they won’t walk across the street without getting paid.

Given the choice, American professionals would skip the Ryder Cup without so much as a fleeting thought. But they know, given the history and the popularity of golf’s greatest event, that should they thumb their noses at the Ryder Cup, they never would hear the end of it from everyone in the game.

You have to wonder what Wayne Gretzky, the father of Johnson’s partner, Paulina Gretzky, had to say to Johnson in either the prelude or the aftermath of this decision. Gretzky played for Canada in Nagano in 1998, the first time NHL players went to the Olympics. He was executive director for Canada in Salt Lake City in 2002 and Turin in 2006.

"I'm a big believer in the Olympic Games," Gretzky said in 2016. "I happen to love everything about the Olympic Games.

"From my point of view, we play for one thing, and that's the Stanley Cup," said Gretzky, whose Edmonton Oilers won the NHL’s top prize four times in the 1980s. "There's nothing more exciting than the Stanley Cup. But the one spectacle that's really remarkable is the Olympic Games."

Is one week every four years too much to ask? And if Johnson doesn’t compete in the 2020 Olympics, his time might have passed. When the 2024 Games come around, Johnson would be 40, and there’s no guarantee he’d be good enough to qualify.

Even the Great One knows that gold is more valuable than green. And Lord Stanley’s trophy is light years beyond the FedEx Cup in prestige. It’s a shame that he couldn’t convince his narrow-minded future son-in-law that choices matter. And besides, how is Johnson going to explain this to Gretzky’s grandchildren?

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