SAO PAULO (AP) — With an eye on the return of golf to the Olympics in 2016, Brazil is hosting its most important tournament in more than a decade.
The Brasil Classic being played this week on America's second-tier Web.com Tour is Brazil's highest quality event since the European Tour last staged a tournament in the country, in 2001.
It is set to help pave the way for the arrival of the U.S. PGA Tour in Brazil next year or in 2015, ahead of the return of golf to the Olympics for the first since the 1904 St. Louis Games.
Golf is guaranteed until the 2020 Olympics.
The Brasil Classic at Sao Paulo Golf Club is giving local Olympic organizers a rare chance to take a close look at the preparations needed to stage an event in Rio.
"The Brasil Classic is the most important tournament in the Brazilian golf calendar," said local golf federation president Paulo Pacheco. "It's a unique opportunity for the sport in Brazil and in Latin America."
The European Tour staged events in Brazil in 2000 and 2001. The U.S. LPGA Tour has been coming to Brazil with an exhibition event for the past four years but with a limited field.
Olympic organizers and the International Golf Federation have said the goal was to bring a U.S. PGA Tour tournament to the country to serve as a test event ahead of the Rio Olympics.
Benjamin Alvarado of Chile led the Sao Paulo tournament by three shots over American Kevin Kim after the third round on Saturday.
Also playing are 2003 U.S. PGA Championship winner Shaun Micheel and local favorite Alexandre Rocha, who in 2010 became the first Brazilian to play on the U.S. PGA Tour in more than 30 years.
"It's incredible to be able to participate in a tournament like this in my own city," Rocha said. "Three years ago, before I made it to the PGA Tour, I never thought that this would be happening so soon."
Golf is far from a popular sport in football-mad Brazil, but it has been gaining a lot of attention from local media since it returned to the Olympics for the Rio Games.
The golf course in Rio has been at the heart of a legal dispute over who owns the land where it will be built. Local organizers have downplayed the problem and construction work is expected to begin this month. American architect Gil Hanse will design the links-style course near where most Olympic sports will be staged.
"If golf becomes popular in a country the size of Brazil maybe someday we will have a Brazilian Pele in golf, too," said nine-time major winner Gary Player, who was in Brazil this week as an ambassador for the Brasil Classic. "This is not impossible."
To help attract fans, Sao Paulo organizers gave away free tickets and staged clinics for the public.
Brazil has just over 100 golf courses, but very few of them are public. The Olympic course in Rio will be open to the public after the games.
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