LONDON • The future of golf as an Olympic sport has been thrown into serious doubt on the eve of the Open Championship after confirmation that Jordan Spieth will not compete in Rio de Janeiro.
The world No. 3's decision to follow the examples of his fellow American Dustin Johnson, Australia's Jason Day and Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy means that not one of the world's top four players will be in Brazil when the sport returns to the Games next month after an absence of 112 years.
Victor Dubuisson of France and Kim Kyung Tae of South Korea also added their names to the list of players who will not take part.
Almost all those who have pulled out have cited fears over the Zika virus, but there have been no significant withdrawals from the women's competition, which will take place with an elite field.
Golf's readmission to the Games was secured in 2009, after a number of top players had indicated their enthusiasm for taking part.
That so many have now turned their backs on the event, despite repeated assurances from the World Health Organisation (WHO) that they have nothing to fear, could lead to the sport being kicked out again after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) carries out its formal review.
IOC president Thomas Bach said: "The IOC, of course, has to respect the decisions of the athletes. But it is obvious that this does not help the attractiveness of the golf competition."
Richard Peterkin, an IOC official, suggested that the sport may pay for the withdrawals. "Well I guess golf is not really that interested in remaining on the sports program. Lots of other interested sports," he wrote on Twitter.
Peter Dawson, president of the International Golf Federation (IGF), which is responsible for organising golf's Olympic programme, accused his sport's leading players of "overreaction" regarding the Zika virus threat.
"We have invested a huge amount of time and effort on player education and they've had no lack of opportunity, I think, to make their own well-informed decisions," he said.
"It's certainly disappointing that we've had so many withdrawals on the men's side, and wonderful that all of the women have been very supportive.
"Speaking collectively though, there is no doubt that the number of withdrawals hasn't shed golf in the best light.
"Personally, I think there's been something of an over-reaction to the Zika situation, but that's for individuals to determine, and there's certainly a great deal of concern about this issue inside the game of golf."
In response to a subsequent question over how susceptible golfers may be to Zika, which is transmitted via mosquitoes, Dawson replied with more than a touch of sarcasm: "I take great heart from the fact we haven't lost a greenkeeper yet."
Adam Pengilly, Britain's member of the IOC's athletes commission, said if top golfers continued to display a lack of interest it would damage the chances of it remaining an Olympic sport after Tokyo 2020.
He said: "I wonder if golfers are all that bothered. It doesn't help their case to stay beyond Tokyo if they don't turn up and that's especially a shame from the women's point of view where almost all are due to come to Rio.
"It's a bit strange that it just seems to be golfers who are worried about Zika to that extent."
THE TIMES, LONDON, THE GUARDIAN