Golf: John Deere PGA Tour event hits snag in Olympic year with few big names

Jordan Spieth will not be defending his title at the US$4.8 million (S$6.5 million) John Deere event.
Jordan Spieth will not be defending his title at the US$4.8 million (S$6.5 million) John Deere event. PHOTO: AFP

LOS ANGELES (AFP) - The return of golf to the Olympics for the first time in 112 years and the absence of defending champion Jordan Spieth leaves this week's John Deere Classic with a tractor-size headache.

Americans Zach Johnson and Kevin Na are the only golfers in the top 50 in the field, while third-ranked Spieth is a no-show.

Spieth earned a spot in the Rio Games, but decided to take a pass. He said he would also not defend his title at the US$4.8 million (S$6.5 million) John Deere event.

"I don't think it would be an appropriate move to play that week," he said last month. "I don't think it would be appropriate given our decision on the Olympics."

Two-time Major champion Johnson, who won the event in 2012, was one shot away from joining Spieth and Tom Gillis in a play-off last year. Spieth beat Gillis to win his second John Deere crown.

Very few of the world's top players are in the 152-man field that will tee up on Thursday at the Deere Run course in Silvis, Illinois.

The Olympics prompted a change in the US PGA Tour schedule that pushed the John Deere to August. The PGA Championship was also given a new time slot in July so it would not clash with the Games.

Johnson said that even if he had qualified for Rio, he would have sided with Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day and skipped it.

The Olympics are for "athletes who strive for the Olympics and crave it. I crave to watch it", said Johnson, who is ranked 22nd in the world.

The winner of the 2007 US Masters and the 2015 British Open told an American radio show host earlier this week that he considers the Ryder Cup to be the Olympics of golf.

"I would rather be on that team more than anything in my career at this point," he said.

Johnson will get an opportunity to further that goal this week, as he is currently in sixth place in points for the United States team. The top eight American players automatically make the team when the Aug 28 deadline is reached.

US captain Davis Love will add four more picks for the Ryder Cup, which runs from Sept 30 to Oct 2 at the Hazeltine National Golf Club in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

World No. 34 Na and former Major winners Angel Cabrera, Geoff Ogilvy and Keegan Bradley are also in the field this week.