RIO DE JANEIRO — David Hearn isn’t going to publicly question the personal decisions that kept Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Dustin Johnson from Rio this week.
But put it this way — it would have taken much more than the threat of an infectious mosquito bite to keep the Canadian golf pro from competing in his sport’s historic return to the Olympics.
“I think it’s been really unfortunate that there’s been this little cloud,” Hearn said of the celebrity dropouts following a nine-hole practice round alongside Canadian teammate Graham DeLaet on Tuesday afternoon. “You have to respect their decisions, but you have to look at it as a bigger picture.
“I look at it as any chance you get to represent your country, you have to take that. To be here and to make history with golf being back in the Olympics is something that is very special and something I’ll remember for a long time.”
Motivation is high for both Hearn and DeLaet to jumpstart sub-standard seasons on the PGA Tour. Hearn currently sits in 100th place in earnings with $933,154, five spots ahead of DeLaet ($893,002).
Both feel their games are coming around, however, and on the links-style course here, with forgiving fairways and zero rough, the Canadians believe the opportunity to score and get in contention exists for both.
“I’m here to medal, there’s no question about that,” said DeLaet. “I think that David and I both have that ability. We’re going to have to play some good golf, obviously, there’s some good players in this field. It would mean a lot.”
Unlike too many of the pampered elite near the top of the world golf rankings, just being at the Olympics means a lot to both Canadians as well.
DeLaet, for example, had planned to play at the Travelers Championship last week — an event he had made serious cash in with a third- and fourth-place finish over the past three years. But the opportunity to walk into the Maracana Stadium and the opening ceremony was too rich to pass up.
“That’s one of my favourite golf tournaments of the year and I’ve had success there in the past,” DeLaet said. “But I wanted to come down for the opening ceremony. I thought that I’d really regret that if I didn’t go, maybe as soon as next week and maybe 30 years down the line.
“Like man, I went to Hartford, Connecticut to play a golf tournament instead of coming down to the opening. I just kind of thought through it and I really had to go. I’m glad I did. It was one of the coolest experiences of my life.”
The 72-hole stroke play event gets under way Thursday and, frankly, not much is expected of the Canadians, a reflection of their play thus far this season. According to online bookmaker bet365.com, both are decided long shots at odds of 66-1.
Recent British Open champion Henrik Stenson of Sweden is the 5-1 favourite, followed by Spain’s Sergio Garcia (8-1) and Great Britain’s Justin Rose (11-1).
Because of the nature of the event — no money awarded and medals given to the top three only — Sunday’s final round could be a shootout of attack-style, aggressive golf. And if the Canadians are in contention, they won’t feel shy about taking a shot.
“I’m going to try to make it feel like any other tournament round that I play, but I know from my experience in the past when I have represented Canada that it definitely feels different and it takes on a special meaning,” Hearn said. “It takes on some added significance from other events that you play.
“I think when Sunday rolls around, the pride of having a chance to medal for your country will step into it.”
And for DeLaet, there will be an extra kick in participating in the first Olympic tournament since fellow Canadian George S. Lyon captured gold 112 years earlier. The Weyburn, Sask. native will be in the opening group on Thursday as Canada begins what has to be the longest title defence in the history of sport.
“It will be cool,” DeLaet said. “Neat being in the lead group getting the game back into the Olympics.”