By Tony Jimenez
TROON, Scotland (Reuters) - Golf returns to the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro next month following an absence of 112 years, but British Open champion Zach Johnson has questioned whether the sport truly belongs on the Games schedule.
The 40-year-old American, who claimed his second major championship when he triumphed at St Andrews 12 months ago, believes minority sports are more deserving of prominence in an event that only comes around every four years.
"I don't know if golf has its place in the Olympics now," Johnson told a news conference on Monday. "We are relevant 24/7, 365 days of the year, if that's your barometer and criteria relevancy.
"I think golf fans really look forward to the majors ... and the Ryder Cup in particular. I know, as a player, those are my main motivations.
"No offence to the Olympics but I'd rather be on the Ryder Cup team. As an American golfer I have that opportunity and that's what I'd rather," added Johnson.
World number one Jason Day, second-ranked Dustin Johnson, number three Jordan Spieth and fourth-ranked Rory McIlroy are among several top players to have pulled out of the Olympics because of fears over the Zika virus.
Zach Johnson believes, however, that it is too early to tell how the string of high-profile withdrawals will affect golf's return to the Games.
"Will it fit in? Is there any motivation? Is there going to be any tradition? ... it's yet to be seen," said the 2007 U.S. Masters champion.
"The Olympics to me is certainly the premier event when it comes down to a lot of different sports. Those sports should be at the forefront, wrestling, all those sports that just don't get the recognition the mainstream sports get.
"Those athletes train essentially for three or four years for that one opportunity and one week. You can argue that basketball and soccer, do they really need to be in there either?" said Johnson.
"My guess is they want a World Cup before they want a gold medal, they'd want an NBA Championship before they want a gold medal."
Johnson, who will play alongside Australian Adam Scott and Henrik Stenson of Sweden in the first round of the Open on Thursday, says he is an avid television viewer every time the Games comes round.
"You can see the passion for the Olympics is there, pretty much regardless of any sport, but especially the ones that are just not mainstream, and I love that," he explained.
(Editing by Andrew Roche)