(Reuters) - For Argentina’s Emiliano Grillo, the prospect of representing his country at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro is the closest thing he can imagine to being a soccer player at a World Cup.
Golf is set to return to the Olympics after an absence of more than a century and Grillo is itching to be one of the competitors vying for glory in global sport’s showpiece where he will be watched and supported by scores of family and friends.
”It’s pretty nice,“ Grillo, 23, told Reuters with a broad smile when asked about golf being played at the Aug. 5-21 Rio Games. ”It’s a big, big thing. It’s like a World Cup for football.
”It will be that big, and getting a medal for our country is the biggest thing we can do.
“And it’s in Brazil, right next to my home,” he grinned. “I could probably drive up there but I‘m not going to do that. I‘m going to have a lot of friends and family supporting me there.”
Grillo, the world number 35 who is already guaranteed a spot at the Olympics, hails from Resistencia in soccer-mad Argentina, a city which is roughly 1,500 miles (2,413 km) by road from Rio.
Despite the relative proximity of Resistencia to the Venue Reserva de Marapendi layout which will host the golf competition at the Summer Games, Grillo has not yet seen the course.
”I’ve never been there before and I‘m not going to have any time to do that until the Olympics,“ he said. ”So I‘m just going to have to do everything in that week to get it right, with my preparation.
“Hopefully I can get a gold medal and get one ahead of the Argentina football team,” Grillo again flashed a wide grin.
Argentina, who have twice won soccer’s World Cup, were beaten 1-0 by Germany in the final of the 2014 edition.
“I know it will be pretty hard, but I‘m looking forward to it,” Grillo said of his quest for Olympic gold. “I am getting ready for Rio, I am practising hard for it.”
Grillo will certainly be a player to watch in Rio after winning his first PGA Tour title at the season-opening Frys.com Open in October when he beat American Kevin Na in a playoff after his first start as an official PGA Tour member.
“That was the greatest moment of my life, golf-wise,” he recalled. “Only five weeks before that did I know I was going to be a member of the PGA Tour. It meant everything to me.”
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.
Officials will also make space for at least one male and one female player from Brazil, and are committed to having at least one golfer from Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania.
While the spread of the mosquito-borne Zika virus across Latin America has given many athletes preparing for Rio cause for concern, Grillo is not among them.
“Where I‘m from, we’ve got another mosquito virus (Dengue fever) which is pretty similar,” said Grillo, who tied for 17th at the PGA Tour’s Arnold Palmer Invitational on Sunday.
“Everybody is making a deal about the Zika virus just because it’s something new. The same thing happened when Dengue fever popped up in Buenos Aires for a couple of months and everybody made a huge deal about it. I am not scared of it.”
Zika has not been proven to cause microcephaly in babies, but there is growing evidence that suggests a link. The condition is defined by unusually small heads that can result in developmental problems.
Brazil said it has confirmed more than 860 cases of microcephaly, and considers most of them to be related to Zika infections in the mothers. Brazil is investigating more than 4,200 additional suspected cases of microcephaly.
Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by Frank Pingue