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2008 Olympic golf debate still ongoing

Golf could reappear as an Olympic sport at Beijing in 2008 after an absence of more than a hundred years but there are conflicting views as to whether it should feature the game's leading professionals.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) says the top players would have to take part to merit the sport's return, a feeling echoed by the International Golf Federation (IGF), which is keen to reintroduce golf to the Olympics.

However, three-times major winner Ernie Els and world number one Tiger Woods are among several leading players who would prefer their sport to be restricted to amateurs only if it returns to the Summer Games schedule for the first time since 1904.

The four major championships represent golf's holy grail, and the leading players believe that anything else -- Olympic gold medals included -- would rank as second best.

"Golf should have a huge spot in the Olympics, and I'm not sure why it's not there yet," Els told Reuters. "But are you going to put the best amateur players in the Olympics or the best professional players?

"And what is more important: a gold medal for your country or a major championship by yourself?

"My feeling is that they can put the amateurs in first and see how it works. Then maybe, at a later stage, put in the professionals."

Eight-times major winner Woods likes the idea of golf appearing on the Beijing menu, but says it is probably not for him.

"It certainly does excite me," said the 28-year-old American. "But which one would you rather win -- an Olympic gold medal or one of the four major championships?"

Britain's Nick Faldo, who has won three British Opens and three U.S. Masters, believes the golfing calendar is already too congested to accommodate golf as a professional Olympic sport.

"It's just week after week on our schedule, we do have an awful lot of golf," said the 46-year-old Englishman.

"I think it would be great if it was part of an amateur schedule, under-25s or something like that, because you are playing for a medal."

But Royal and Ancient Golf Club secretary Peter Dawson, who is also joint secretary of the IGF, said the support of professionals was vital for golf's return to the Games.

"It's important for the best players to be involved," he said.

"I take that as a given. There is no prospect of it being an amateur sport at the Olympics.

Golf first featured as an Olympic sport at the 1900 Paris Games, when Americans Charles Sands and Margaret Abbott clinched gold medals in the men's and women's individual events.

Four years later, Canada's George Lyon won the individual title from a field of 75 at the St Louis Games, where the United States sealed team honours after producing the only three sides in the competition.

For golf to appear at the Olympics for the third time in the history of the Games another sport would have to make way, although the IOC has not thrown out a sport since 1936.

At an IOC session in Mexico in November 2002, three sports facing exclusion -- modern pentathlon, softball and baseball -- were given a reprieve when members resisted a proposal to drop them.

Members voted to postpone any cuts of entire sports until after this August's Olympics in Athens.

Dawson said he expected to hear if golf could return to the Olympics in Beijing by the middle of next year.

"We've been waiting to see what transpires and we've only recently heard that the IOC have set up a procedure with a series of meetings between now and July 2005," he told Reuters.

"If they stick to that timetable, we should know, one way or the other, by May or June of 2005. Golf will be in there as part of the process.

"Although it's very difficult to predict if golf will appear in Beijing, it has a very strong case, not least for the number of its participants around the world," Dawson added.

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