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Jack Nicklaus backs off criticism of Rory McIlroy, other top Olympic golf no-shows

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Jack Nicklaus was once critical of the top four male golfers skipping the Olympics but he has since had a change of heart, admitting that as a player, he "wasn’t into growing [the game of golf] either."

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When Jack Nicklaus was rolling to 18 major championships during his PGA Tour career, any notion that he was playing to coax non-golfers to pick up the game would have been preposterous.

That’s what one of today’s most vocal "grow the game" proponents acknowledged on Wednesday when he defended Rory McIlroy against critics who bash him and other top male players for skipping the Olympics.

"I didn’t get into golf to try and grow the game," McIlroy said before last month’s Open Championship. "I got into golf to win ... major championships, and all of a sudden you get to this point and there is a responsibility on you to grow the game. I get that but at the same time, that’s not the reason that I got into golf. I got into golf to win. I didn't get into golf to get other people into the game."

Sentiments to which Nicklaus now wholeheartedly subscribes.

"When I was playing the game, I wasn’t into growing it either," Nicklaus told reporters ahead of this week’s U.S. Senior Open. "Did I play a lot of places? Sure. And by playing a lot of places that helped to grow the game.

"But I was there to win, not grow," Nicklaus added. "I think when Rory said he was not into growing the game, he was into playing the game."

The sport that had been absent from the summer games since 1904 got off to a rather slow start Thursday, with a smattering of spectators applauding Brazil’s Adilson da Silva after the first Olympic tee shot in 112 years.

A few hours later, the event was well underway, but with little of the pizzazz golf fans have come to expect of majors or even regular tour events involving the world’s best.

Sure, Bubba Watson, Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia are in the field, but it has been difficult not to notice who’s not among the 60 golfers playing for individual glory within a semi-team environment.

Nicklaus initially wondered about the reasons the Big Four (Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and McIlroy) opted out of Rio, but has had a definite change of heart.

"I was a little critical of the guys to start with. I thought it might have been selfish of them not to go. Then I started looking at that, and it is not the pinnacle of their sport," Nicklaus said. "I think when Rory said he was not into growing the game, he was into playing the game.

"Well, I look back at it. I mean, I'm past playing the game. My game is gone," he added. "My focus on the game of golf now is to grow the game. So, yeah, they are into playing."

Just not in the Olympics, which is a shame for those hoping golf remains in the games beyond 2020, but Jack Nicklaus gets it.