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Golf ready to make good first impression in Olympic debut

Golf isn't guaranteed to be an Olympic sport after 2020, so the players need to make a good impression at the 2016 Rio Games.

Contrary to how it may seem, there will be a men's golf competition in Rio, marking the sport's return to the Games after 112 years. But a dispiriting string of withdrawals by top players has undoubtedly diminished what could have been a marquee event. The loss of Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy (Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4 in the world, respectively), who all cited concern over the Zika virus, is damaging. But there are still a few good players willing to endure a flight on a private jet and stay in a five-star hotel for a chance to represent their country and take a run at Olympic glory.

The U.S. will trot out Bubba Watson (ranked No. 5 in the world), Rickie Fowler (7), Patrick Reed (13) and Matt Kuchar (15). (The 60-person fields for the men's and women's competitions are drawn from the World Ranking. Any player in the top 15 qualifies, though no country can have more than four players; in all other cases, it's a maximum of two golfers per nation.) The newly built Olympic course, with its linksy look, evokes the great courses of Australia's Sand Belt, such as Royal Melbourne. Says course designer Gil Hanse, "It will favor a player who is creative with the short game given the varied recovery options around the greens."

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There are many potential Cinderella stories in the men's field—16 players are ranked lower than 200th—but the Olympics will be four days of stroke play, which favors the strongest players, as opposed to the vagaries of match play.

In the absence of the top men's players, the women will get more of the spotlight. All of the best will be in Rio, including world No. 1 Lydia Ko, a New Zealand national; Korea will send a powerhouse quartet to Rio, led by Inbee Park (3). The U.S. will be represented by Lexi Thompson (4), Stacy Lewis (9) and Gerina Piller (15), who squeaked in with her eighth-place finish at the U.S. Women's Open.

Golf is guaranteed a spot in the 2020 Games but not beyond. (Its fate will be determined by an IOC vote in 2017.) So expect a spirited competition in Rio; not only will the assembled golfers be trying to make a good impression, but they will also understand that their Olympic window is small, and already closing. Alan Shipnuck

Here are 10 cool potential Olympic golf storylines, five for each tournament.

1. Adilson da Silva wins. The 44-year-old Brazilian, the host country’s only entry on the men’s side, is 271st in the world ranking. Previous claim to fame: Winning the Zimbabwean Order of Merit five times, and playing in three British Opens. Hey, Brazil could be crazy about golf for at least a night. 

2. Anirban Lahiri fights his way to the top spot on the podium to set off a golf boomlet in India, where the population tops one billion people. This one could actually happen; Lahiri tied for fifth at the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, and finished 20th in the final IGF Olympic Rankings.

3. Rickie Fowler beats Bubba Watson in a playoff. With a potential global audience of 3.6 billion people, Olympic Golf was brought back into the fold to make the sport look cool or at least more appealing to kids in non-golfing countries. Who’s cooler than Fowler?

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4. Bubba Watson wins and cries his eyes out. The message conveyed by those who bailed on Rio is clear: Olympic golf doesn’t matter. Message conveyed by Bubba tearing up while having gold draped around his neck during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner: It does.

5. Patrick Reed wins to jump start a career that has curiously stalled since he took such joy in playing the antihero at the 2014 Ryder Cup at Gleneagles and subsequently captured the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in January of 2015. Reed is too good to remain dormant indefinitely.

6. Lydia Ko, she of the 13 LPGA victories, including two majors, at just 19, keeps on Ko-ing to validate her No. 1 ranking and set off parties in two countries if not three. Ko was born in South Korea, grew up in and plays for New Zealand and has made her career mostly in America. 

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7. Cathryn Bristow, another Kiwi who nabbed the 60th and last spot in the IGF Rankings, pulls off an upset for the ages. Haven’t heard of her? There’s good reason. Bristow, 31, has career earnings of $59,000 on the Australian Ladies Professional Golf Tour and is a distant 446th in the latest Rolex Rankings.

8. Brooke Henderson, Canada’s sweetheart, one-ups herself after having already won two LPGA events in 2016: the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship and the Cambia Portland Classic. As Graham DeLaet, her countryman on the men’s side, reminds, they take the Games pretty seriously in Canada.

9. Lexi Thompson, America’s sweetheart, picks up her biggest win since the 2014 Kraft Nabisco Championship. Like Fowler on the men’s side, the 21-year-old, seven-time LPGA winner Thompson leads all style-with-substance rankings and therefor would theoretically help grow the sport like no one else. 

10. Anna Nordqvist rises again after her sad demise at the U.S. Women’s Open, where she touched the sand with her club and was penalized two shots in an aggregate playoff won by Brittany Lang. Nordqvist has a win and five top-10s already this year on the LPGA, and everyone loves a good comeback story. —Cameron Morfit