Great Britain's Justin Rose tees off during a practice round, as 2016 Masters champion Danny Willett looks on © Reuters
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Organisers of the Olympic Games golf tournament have spent weeks fretting about how to prevent local wildlife stopping play.

The course on the tropical outskirts of Rio de Janeiro is teeming with capybaras, the world’s largest rodent. Golfers may also want to avoid the sandy bunkers where ground-nesting owls have burrowed.

But animal interruptions are the least of the sport’s problems on its return to the games for the first time in more than a century. Even before the men tee-off for their first round on Thursday, the event is widely considered to be a debacle. 

Many of golf’s best male players, some of the most marketable figures in world sport, have declined to attend, citing health concerns. The world’s top four — the US’s Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth, Australia’s Jason Day and Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy — have all declined their places. 

They have expressed concern over the outbreak of the mosquito-borne Zika virus, linked to abnormalities in babies from infected mothers. Men can sexually transmit the disease to women. 

But the risk has proven small enough for the vast majority of athletes to attend, including nine of the top 10 women golfers. (South Korea has five of the top 10 women, but is only permitted a team of four).

Asked by reporters in Rio about the failure of top male golfers to turn up, Peter Dawson, president of the International Golf Federation, said: “It’s certainly not helpful, but I think — now we are looking forward — we are concentrating on the players who are here.”

The suspicion is that the golfers found a useful alibi to skip the games, which come in the middle of a run of major events — the British Open and USPGA championships in July and the Ryder Cup next month. 

Capybaras, the world's largest rodents, inhabit the Olympic course © Reuters

At the Open Championship, McIlroy said he was “not sure” he would even watch the Olympic golf, instead sticking to “events like track and field, swimming, diving — the stuff that matters”. 

It was a devastating critique for golf’s authorities.

They had pushed for inclusion in the games after being shown data on how the popularity of tennis had spread, thanks to its Olympics entry in 1988. In Rio, most of the biggest names in tennis, including Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams, the number one male and female players, are competing.

“Golf will seriously have their work cut out to prove they should have the right to continue,” said Michael Payne, a former head of marketing at the International Olympic Committee, the governing body. He said golf could be struck off the roster after the next summer games in Tokyo.

“All these golfers came out and said ‘this is our dream’. Now, they are picking up what looks to be a very convenient excuse,” he said.

“From the perspective of [IOC members], they will think ‘we have a queue of sports that want to get in’,” he added.

There is excitement from some players, however, particularly from lesser golfing nations. “For the past two weeks before I came here I was giving an interview almost every day,” said Shiv Chawrasia, an Indian golfer. “In India, few people know golf but the Olympics is really very big.”

Li Haotong of China practises on the Olympic course, reclaimed from a nature reserve © Reuters

Rio’s golf tournament has faced problems from the start. The course is built on a nature reserve and has faced protests from environmentalists. Organisers have also had to train staff to keep animals from crossing fairways.

The format has also been criticised. As in other big golf events, the competitors will playing 72 holes over four rounds.

The difference is that in the professional events, golfers are incentivised to keep playing hard by being awarded more prize money for each higher place. Yet as they will not be paid at all to appear in Rio, those falling out of medal contention may feel that as the Olympic contest progresses they have little to play for. 

The return of golf to the Olympics had been seen as a lucrative opportunity for both the sport and the games.

Golf is popular among wealthier men in developed nations, an attractive audience for the IOC’s corporate sponsors and broadcasters.

The sport’s authorities also hoped the Olympics could help counter the decline in player numbers. The number of golfers in the US, the world’s largest market, has fallen from about 30m in 2005 to 24.1m in 2015, according to the US National Golf Foundation.

But what could have been a showcase for the emerging rivalry between the sport’s young stars such as McIlroy, Spieth and Day, will instead be a diminished competition.

Speaking last month about his decision not to play, McIlroy said: “I don’t feel like I’ve let the game down at all. I didn’t get into golf to try to grow the game. I got into golf to win championships and win majors.” 

In Rio, golf looks unlikely to be infected with the Olympic spirit.

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