By Steve Keating
ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - Already a global sport, golf's future lies in the growth of the international game and a return to the Olympics, seven-times major winner Arnold Palmer said on Friday.
After 112 years, golf will return to the Olympic program at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Games, making it the sport's most significant event after the four major championships.
"As the Olympics cast their influence on the world with golf becoming an Olympic sport it is going to have a great affect on the game," Palmer, 83, told Reuters at Bay Hill where he is hosting this week's PGA Tour stop. "I would have enjoyed that (playing in an Olympics) had it been part of the program but I am happy that it's doing what it is doing.
"International golf is going to become a bigger factor as time goes on than it is now and I think that we as a nation and the United States are going to have to take a look at the international aspects of golf," added Palmer.
Just a glance at the Arnold Palmer Invitational leaderboard on Friday underscored how global golf has become with players from 10 different nations represented among the top 20.
Many of those players, including Tiger Woods, Fijian Vijay Singh, Spain's Sergio Garcia and Japan's Ryo Ishikawa could be representing their respective countries when golf returns to the Olympics in 2016.
But while the Olympics are sure to attract the world's best golfers, Palmer is not as convinced that the course layout for the Summer Games will be of the same high quality that they have become accustomed to.
A renowned course architect himself, Palmer is concerned that delays in construction could mean the Olympic course will not be of a gold medal standard.
"I am still little nervous about the Olympics and how that will transpire in 2016 simply because they are a little behind the gun already and they are going to have to pick up pretty quickly," said Palmer.
"It takes a little time to build a golf course and takes a little more time for it to mature into a championship type golf course."
Earlier this month American Gil Hanse was selected to design the Olympic course, beating out competition from seven other architects, including well-known ex-players Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Greg Norman.
Hanse is known for minimalist designs which rely on the natural environment rather than heavily-landscaped courses and also for building courses that are accessible to both amateur and professional players.
The course will be built at Reserva de Marapendi in Barra da Tijuca, about five kilometers from the Athletes' Village.
After the 2016 Summer Games, the layout will be used as a public facility to help promote golf in Brazil.
After several false starts, work on the Olympic course is set to begin next month and open in 2015, Rio organizers said on the International Olympic Committee's website.
"As it marks the return of golf to the Olympic Games after over a century of absence, this course represents the beginning of a new chapter in the history of the sport," said Rio 2016 President Carlos Arthur Nuzman. "This course will be an excellent facility for the practice and development of golf and will inspire millions of youth across Brazil and the globe."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)