TORONTO (AP) Golf made its debut at the Pan American Games on Thursday, warming up for its return to the Olympic family next year in Rio de Janeiro after a 112-year absence.
The four-day tournament has a modest mix of professionals and amateurs: 64 players, 32 men and 32 women. But knowing this event leads to Olympic golf makes it big. Very big.
”It’s going to be awesome,” said Felipe Aguilar, who shot a first-round 3-under 69, and hopes to represent Chile next year in the Rio Games.
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”When you have a chance to represent your country, your flag and be with your peers – that’s special,” Aguilar said. ”Golf is a very individual game, and when you play something like this it’s not individual, it’s a whole-country thing.”
Aguilar said he wasn’t even aware golf was in the Pan Am Games until he was invited to play months ago during a radio interview.
”I hope this is the time for golf in South America to explode,” add Aguilar, who played last week in Scotland on the European Tour, and will depart on Sunday for an event in Switzerland. ”It’s very private in Latin America. Maybe this will push the game to being more popular and open.”
Adilson da Silva, a pro playing primarily in Asia and South Africa, said it would be ”the highlight of my career to represent Brazil, in Brazil.”
”I hope the Olympics make a big impact on the game, so lots more people can see what it’s all about,” he said.
Julieta Granada, the highest-ranked U.S. LPGA Tour player in the event at 35th, said golf was invisible in her native Paraguay.
”I guess there are six or seven courses in the whole country,” said Granada, who carded 68 to lead the women at Angus Glen Golf Club, just northeast of downtown Toronto.
”It’s super cool for the golf community to be back in the Olympics after 100 years-plus.”
Granada said she practiced climbing the medal podium last year at the smaller South American Games.
”We got up on the little plateaus, those platforms,” she said. ”It was nice. I got it down.”
In the mix was American Andrea Lee, a 16-year-old from southern California, who was one stoke off the lead with a 69 and has already been admitted to Stanford University.
She’s an amateur and will miss Rio, but future Olympics are in her plans.
”That’s definitely one of my goals,” said Lee, a senior-to-be at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, California. ”It’s really exciting that golf will be a part of the Olympics. Unfortunately, I will be on the sidelines watching on TV.”
Golf has almost no profile in Brazil, a game for the rich that lacks the mass appeal of soccer or volleyball.
Think bullfighting in Finland, or ice hockey in Iraq. That’s the challenge.
Rio’s new Olympic golf course, which is billed as a ”public course,” is surrounded by luxury, high-rise apartments that will start at $2 million. Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes has repeatedly said he would never have pushed building a golf course, were it not for the Olympics.
”That’s the last thing I would do,” he said months ago.
Brazilian amateur Andre Tourinho, who played golf in the United States at the University of Tulsa, said golf’s inclusion means he’s getting more support from Brazilian golf officials.
”It’s getting better, but it’s still very elite,” he said. ”I don’t think the clubs are open like they should be for ordinary people. Maybe the Olympics will make a small change. I really hope so.”
Stephen Wade on Twitter: http://twitter.com/StephenWadeAP