December 10, 2015 / 8:01 PM / 2 years ago

Top players eye Rio Games with contrasting views

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Sets of hickory golf clubs sit outside a clubhouse during the World Hickory Open Golf Championship at Monifeith Links golf course in Monifeith, north east Scotland in this file photo dated October 8, 2012.David Moir

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - It will be no more than an exhibition sport; it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; it will be awesome; let's wait and see how it feels once you get there.

These are among the wide ranging responses from top players as they prepare for golf's return to the Olympics at next year's Rio Summer Games after an absence of more than a century, a return embraced by many and panned by others.

For backers, the prospect of golfers walking beside swimmers and athletes at the opening ceremonies in Rio is an intoxicating one but critics argue that golf, like tennis, already has its four blue riband events and should not be an Olympic sport.

Those critics firmly believe that golf's major championships and the grand slams in tennis represent the pinnacle of achievement in their respective sports and that the allure of an Olympic medal would always rank lower.

American golfer Matt Kuchar, a seven-times winner on the PGA Tour who has played amateur tennis at a high level, expressed mixed feelings about the impact of his sport's return to the Olympics.

"Most of the Olympic sports have their 'big event' either once every four years – at the Summer Games -- or once every two years with the World Cups and world championships that go on," Kuchar told Reuters.

"In the golf world and the tennis world, we have our four majors and our four grand slams every year, and then every other week there is a big event going on with major attention.

"So historically you would say, 'Gosh, I want to win the Masters or I want to win Wimbledon, the U.S. Opens, the British Opens that players really gear up to.' The fact that we have an event every week, the Olympics will be another event."

However, Kuchar felt it would be very difficult to rank a major championship victory over an Olympic gold medal without ever experiencing the "uniquely special" atmosphere of a Summer Games.

"It's hard to say without being there in the moment," said the 37-year-old, who has represented the U.S. a combined six times at the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup, and twice at the two-man World Cup of Golf.

"Once you get there, there's always something special about representing your country. You always get goose bumps when you see the American flag that you are playing for ... it's uniquely special, it gets your attention more so than normal.

"For the fact that this is going to be the first time in over a hundred years for golf to be played at the Olympics, we will certainly be awfully excited. But would you rather win one of the majors or an Olympic medal? I don't know exactly."

Warm Embrace

Golf most recently featured as an Olympic sport in St Louis in 1904 and leading players such as American world number one Jordan Spieth and fifth-ranked Swede Henrik Stenson have warmly embraced its return to the Games agenda.

"When I was really young, I always thought of the Olympians that walked in the opening ceremonies as the greatest-athletes-in-the-world type of thing," said Masters and U.S. Open champion Spieth.

"But once I chose golf, I didn't think it would ever be a reality. To be one of those athletes ... I would never forget that ceremony and that walk, walking with the American flag ... it will be awesome if I can make that team."

Sixty players will compete over 72 holes of strokeplay in both the men's and women's events in Rio. Golfers in the top 15 of the world rankings will automatically be eligible, although no more than four players from any one country can take part.

Stenson, a nine-times winner on the European Tour, told Reuters: "I see it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be part of the Olympics.

"It's a cool event and, given my age, it could be the only chance I have. I think I'd stay in the (Olympic) village, to get the feel of it. That would elevate the experience."

Former world number one Adam Scott of Australia has an opposing viewpoint, and believes the focus of the Olympics should be on sports where winning a gold medal is the pinnacle, not an afterthought.

"Whether I win an Olympic medal or not is not going to define my career or change whether I've fulfilled my career," Scott told Reuters. "For me, it's all about the four majors and I think that's the way it should stay for golf.

"To go and play an exhibition event down there (in Rio) ... in the middle of the major (golf) season, I don't think any other athletes in their sport would do that.

"Most of the athletes at the Olympics have probably trained four years specifically to peak at this one event. It's the pinnacle of their sport ... (golf) doesn't need to be in the Olympics."

Editing by Frank Pingue

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