-- FARMINGDALE, N.Y. -- Prior to golf's inclusion in this summer's Olympic Games for the first time in 112 years, Rory McIlroy not only withdrew his name from the competition, but insisted he would only watch "the stuff that matters."
As it turns out, he did watch the men's golf tournament -- if only the ending.
"It pleasantly surprised me," McIlroy said Wednesday of Justin Rose's narrow victory over Henrik Stenson. "There was more people at the golf events than there was at the athletics. It was good to see, it really was. It seems like it was a great atmosphere down there. I think it was one of the cheaper tickets, as well, and I think that encouraged a lot of people to go.
"To see the crowds and see the turnout, I was glad to be somewhat proven wrong."
McIlroy wasn't the only elite golfer to forgo the Olympics, joining a list that included fellow world top-4 players Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and D ustin Johnson . Nor was he the only one impressed at what he saw from the comforts of home.
"It came off, I thought, tremendous for the game," Spieth said. "I enjoyed watching the finish to the Olympics and I wished I was there."
Spieth previously made an 11th-hour decision to withdraw from the tournament over various health concerns, a decision he said he agonized over right until he finalized it.
"At the time I made the decision, it was the right decision for me," he continued. "It was the hardest thing I've had to do. The potential for regret was going to be there and it certainly was while I was watching, so that's why I tweeted out, 'I'm looking forward to setting it as a goal to be there in 2020.'"
Unlike McIlroy, who had been on vacation and without television coverage until the final hole on Sunday, Spieth said he watched from beginning to end.
His favorite part?
"The passion that everyone was displaying; the videos I was getting from [U.S. team member] Rickie [Fowler] of all the guys and just how much fun everybody was having on and off the golf course," he said. "The golf course was beautiful, and then the Olympic glory at the end of it. The combination of just about everything. It was from when I watched the opening ceremonies and on. I knew that the opening ceremonies would be tough, but I still wanted to watch, like I watch every Olympics."
The game's No. 1-ranked player, Day stopped short of allowing that he felt any pangs of regret, but was similarly impressed with how golf was viewed.
"Seeing how everything kind of unfolded in Rio with how the golf was played, I think it was well-received amongst the world, actually," he said. "I guess there's a lot more fans that can actually watch golf now that have never really watched it before, just because it's in the Olympics. ... I'm looking forward to Tokyo [in 2020]. If I can play my way on to that team, that would be great. It's four years away, obviously. There's a lot of golf to be played from now until then. If I can play my way onto that team, that would be fantastic."
Golf has already been guaranteed a place in the next Summer Games by the IOC, though its long-term inclusion remains uncertain.
"I would have really liked to play in the Olympics, but unfortunately where it was and all the other things that went along with it was my reason for not going," Johnson said. "Nothing to do with golf in the Olympics. I thought it was great. I would have loved to have gone and played. But to me the risk wasn't worth it. So that was the reason I didn't go. But I would have really liked to have gone. I think it would be a neat experience and a lot of fun, and especially winning a gold medal would be even more fun."
From top players who bypassed the Olympics for health concerns to those who suggested it was an event that didn't matter, they all took notice of their peers.
Even McIlroy, who admitted he was wrong about golf's inclusion.
"I thought golf was sort of going to get lost a little bit," he said. "It was away from the village; I thought it was going to just sort of blend in with everything else and be, not forgotten about, but just one of a lot of sports that are there."