By Liana B. Baker
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Sweden’s Henrik Stenson and the United States’ Bubba Watson will be vying for a gold medal in golf’s return to the Olympics after 112 years, an event with less buzz than many in the sport had hoped for due to some high-profile no-shows.
Watson and Stenson, ranked No. 1 and No. 2 respectively in the Olympics field of 60 players, will be missing some familiar foes, since the top four men in the world — Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy — have controversially decided not to play in the competition, which takes place between Aug. 11 and 14.
Olympic qualifying regulations have allowed the U.S. to send four players, more than any other country. Twice major winner Watson, the world number six, may be the one to beat in Rio.
Another American Rickie Fowler, one of the highest-ranked golfers never to have won a major, will also be in the medal hunt.
Nobody will have an advantage of knowing the newly-built Reserva de Marapendi course and it remains to be seen whether it will favor power or precision.
Stenson, ranked second in the Olympics and fifth in the world, is on the hottest streak, having set scoring records at Royal Troon at the British Open in July.
All three are featuring in the current PGA Championship in New Jersey, the final golf major before the Games.
Britain’s Olympic team is also strong, featuring this year’s Masters winner, Danny Willett, and world No. 11 Justin Rose.
Spain may be a dark horse. Sergio Garcia, who has never won a major but often does well in international tournaments, and fellow countryman Rafa Cabrera Bello are both in the top 10 in the Olympic rankings.
From the lesser known players in the field, the golf world is hoping a breakout star will emerge from a country where the sport needs to grow. Anirban Lahiri, of India, or China’s Hao Tong Li, who won the Volvo China Open in May, could fit the bill.
Canadian golfers David Hearn and Graham DeLaet have the task of defending their country’s gold medal from 1904, the last time the sport featured in the Olympics.
On that occasion George Lyon beat American H. Chandler Egan in a 36-hole final. Lyon was also awarded the 1908 gold medal in London but declined it because no other players showed up.
(Reporting by Liana B. Baker in San Francisco,; Editing by Neville Dalton)