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NEWS FEATURE After initial doubts, golf becomes a winner in Rio By Albert Otti, dpa

Europe
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Golf and Rio are not a natural match. But both sides took a liking to each other in the first Olympic tournament in 112 years.

Rio de Janeiro (dpa) - The Brazilians who flocked to the final round of the men‘s golf at the Rio Games did not get excited about the sloths, monkeys, caimans and snakes that populate the Olympic course.

Spectators came to watch creatures that many of them had never seen in their natural habitat: professional golf players.

Golf‘s comeback to the Olympics after a 112-year absence was sealed Sunday when Britain‘s Justin Rose secured gold by winning the fourth-round duel against Sweden‘s Henrik Stenson at the very last hole.

While Stenson finished two behind Rose and took silver, bronze went to Matt Kuchar of the United States, who finished with a 63 to storm up the field.

"Hopefully we‘ve shown Brazil what golf is about. I‘m glad it was close. Not for my nerves - for golf," Rose said.

Sports officials hope that the return to the Games will broaden the game‘s global appeal. In Rio, spectators explained why Brazilians are not golf enthusiasts.

"We think we love group games more than games that you play individually. They have more warmth," said Livia Carol, a young biology teacher from Rio who had won tickets to the golf tournament.

"We don‘t have this culture here. We love football and volleyball," she said, sporting Brazil‘s national football jersey as she and her partner followed Brazilian golfer Adilson da Silva on this round.

LED signboards asked fans not to distract players with their cheering, but the crowd clearly warmed up to the game nevertheless.

Brazilian fans managed to curb their football habit of booing opponents, but as soon as da Silva took a stroke with his putter, they shouted "In! In! In! - Aaargh!" as they tried but failed to will the ball into the hole.

"Amazing support from the crowd. I didn‘t know what to expect as far as golf in Brazil," Kuchar said.

"It felt like a cross between a golf tournament and a carnival. It was unique, incredible," Rose said.

Rose liked the way fans got involved with their favourite players, in contrast to the more reserved behaviour at major championships.

"You‘ve got pockets of fans that are really pushing you forward. You have a lot more good energy out there," he said.

The golf course is separated from the Atlantic by a lagoon and narrow stretch of sand. The greens are tricky because they are not as flat as they look, and the winds from the sea add an additional challenge.

"It‘s a very nice course," said Sergio Cimerman, a middle-aged man from Brazil‘s business capital Sao Paulo who plays himself.

"It‘s very open and very hard to play. It‘s like in Scotland and England," he said, puffing on a cigar.

The Olympic venue will be turned into the first public golf course to grow the sport in Rio, which has been home to only two members clubs so far.

However, it is not clear how popular the game will become, given Brazil‘s economic crisis.

Cimerman said he has heard that the fee for one round will be higher than the 50 to 70 dollars that are common in Brazil. The average monthly income is around 2000 reals (630 dollars).

While Brazil grapples with its economy, the Olympic golf tournament faced its own problems.

Environmentalists complained that the course was built next to a nature reserve.

In addition, only few of the world‘s 50 top golfers competed in Rio.

Top players Jason Day from Australia, Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth from the United States, and Rory McIlroy from Ireland refused to compete, citing the risk of contracting the mosiquto-borne Zika virus or other health concerns.

Brazilian fans were miffed that players stayed away for this reason, and they pointed out that the current cooler winter season and insect repellant virtually guarantee Zika-free Games.

"I didn‘t like what they said," Taiz Lage complained about the Zika worriers.

"I think they were really afraid of the Swede," the young business manager joked, referring to silver medallist Stenson.

Lage and her friend Claudia Amorim had just hit the first golf shots of their lifetimes, at a small practice area that was set up on edge of the Olympic course.

"We really enjoyed it," said Amorim, a young doctor.

The women said it was more difficult than it looked, but they both now want to take up golf.

It has yet to be decided whether Olympic gold will remain up for grabs after the 2020 Tokyo Games.

The Rio tournament ended up producing a showdown finish and strong attendances, the medallists noted.

"Anybody making a decision going forward, I would just ask them: Were you in Rio on Sunday?" Rose said.

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