By Andrew Downie and Liana B. Baker

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Olympic champion Justin Rose appealed to Games chiefs to forget the withdrawals of top names and focus on the players and fans who did turn up and use that positivity to ensure golf remains as an Olympic sport.

Golf's future in the Games will be debated over the next few years but Rose said Sunday's exciting finale in front of big crowds should guarantee its spot beyond Tokyo 2020."To anybody making the decision going forward, I would just ask them, were you in Rio on Sunday?," Briton Rose told reporters after a thrilling final-round showdown with Sweden's Henrik Stenson earned him the gold medal, the first in the sport since the last time golf was played in the Olympics in 1904.

"I think it was a sell-out which is more than some of the other events I'm watching on TV where there's been a lot of open spots in stadiums," Rose added.

Golf returned to the Olympics after an absence of 112 years and the purpose-built course in Rio de Janeiro was packed to see Rose defeat British Open champion Stenson with a birdie at the final hole.

The exciting finale, however, will not guarantee golf's continued participation in the Olympics.

The sport's reputation was tarnished by the withdrawal of eight of the top 15 ranked players in the world. Some said they had scheduling issues and others cited concerns over the Zika virus, including world number one Jason Day of Australia and American number three Jordan Spieth.

Critics have called for sports that do not bring their top performers to be dropped and although golf will be in Tokyo in 2020 its future beyond that date is still uncertain.

Bronze medalist Matt Kuchar of the United States defended golf's place in the Games and said the thrill of having a medal around his neck was incomparable.

"I can assure you it is the happiest I have ever been finishing third," the 38-year old Floridian said. "Most of the time finishing third you leave satisfied but certainly not excited.

"I can't begin to tell you how I am busting with pride at the moment."

International Golf Federation (IGF) officials said before the tournament that the sport's inclusion had sparked a huge interest in nations that have little tradition or history in the sport.

Some 30 countries applied to join the IGF once golf was made Olympic and more government funding was given to them, said President Peter Dawson.

Brazil is one of those countries where golf is not particularly popular but a successful Olympic tournament should generate interest in the sport.

"It speaks for itself that this event has gone over well," Kuchar said. "What a great showdown at the end. To have this, it couldn't have gone better for the game. It's a clear winner moving forward."

(Editing by Ed Osmond)