(Reuters) - South African Lee-Anne Pace, citing Zika concerns, became the first women's golfer to withdraw from the 2016 Rio Olympics on Wednesday, joining a growing exodus on the men's side that includes the world's top-ranked player.

Pace, a nine-times winner on the Ladies European Tour who is ranked 38th in the world, said she was eager to represent South Africa at the Aug 5-21 Olympics but felt Zika was too big a risk to take.

"After weighing up all the options and discussing it with my family and team, I have decided that due to the health concerns surrounding the Zika virus, I will not be participating," Pace, 35, said in a statement.

"I hope that everyone can understand that this was a very difficult decision to come to, however my health and my future family's health must come first."

In response to Pace's withdrawal, the Ladies Professional Golf Association said in a statement: "Playing in the Rio 2016 Olympics is an incredible honor for any athlete, and we are excited for golf's return to the Games.

"We also realize that the Zika virus is a concern for many, particularly for women with plans for a family in the near-term.

"The decision that any player makes is a personal one, and the LPGA will respect and support our member's decisions as it relates to participating in Rio 2016."

Golf is returning to the Olympics for the first time since 1904, but the Games have already been hit by several high-profile withdrawals within that sport.

Concerns over Zika, a mosquito-borne virus that the World Health Organization says is spreading rapidly in the Americas, have already convinced men's world number one Jason Day, Fiji's Vijay Singh, Charl Schwartzel of South Africa and Ireland's Shane Lowry to pull out of the Games.

U.S. health officials have concluded that Zika infections in pregnant women can cause microcephaly, a birth defect marked by small head size that can lead to severe developmental problems in babies.

The World Health Organisation has said there is strong scientific consensus that Zika can also cause Guillain-Barre, a rare neurological syndrome that causes temporary paralysis in adults.

(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by Frank Pingue)