Lexi Thompson (left) and Michelle Wie will be two of the American golfers that will be hoping to play at the 2016 Rio Olympics. - AFP
BALTIMORE (AFP): Rivals at the LPGA International Crown see this week's global team matches as a sneak peek at the fight for gold in golf's 2016 Olympic return in Rio de Janeiro.
"This is definitely the best preview we have ever had of the Olympics," world number one Stacy Lewis said. "I know we got a long ways to go before Rio, but this is certainly a really good preview to see what we're going to have in Rio."
After years of watching the Olympics with no chance of playing, the US star marveled at the opportunity she now enjoys.
"It's a bit surreal. To think that you could be a part of the opening ceremonies and the closing ceremonies, those kind of things that you see on TV, just to be a part of that and to stay with all the other athletes, it's hard to really even imagine it, because obviously we never have been there," she said.
"But at the same time, you don't want to think about it too much because then you start putting too much pressure on yourself."
With just over two years remaining before the Olympics and the qualifying period just under way, 12th-ranked Paula Creamer acknowledged the tough fight to make the US team, which can include no more than the four top-ranked American women.
"You can't get too far out of the race for it to get in," Creamer said.
"The criteria is pretty tough. You want to be within the mix. You don't ever want to feel like you need to push a little bit harder and focus too much on it."
Thailand's Onnarin Sattayabanphot hopes the Crown, which pits eight teams of four women in match play to decide global bragging rights ahead of the Olympics, will provide a sense of the national pride and pressures that will come in Brazil in 2016.
"I think that this week will really help get our team ready for the Olympics," she said. "The Olympics is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so I think this week will definitely help to get us prepared for the Olympics."
Many players expressed disappointment that there was only an individual Olympic gold medal, and no team contest, at stake, while also noting that such an Olympic event could evolve in the future, perhaps as early as 2020 in Tokyo.
"I was definitely disappointed to not see any kind of team format," Sweden's Anna Nordqvist said.
"I think stroke play is fair. It brings out the best game in everyone. But when I watched the Olympics, a lot of things I relate to is seeing the team format and playing for your country."
Australia's Karrie Webb, a seven-time major champion, does not want match play in the Games, however.
"I wish there was a team component to it. I don't wish that it was a match play," she said.
"Stroke play brings out the best players at the end of the week. You could have had individual medals and also a team component medal."
Spain's Beatriz Recari figures this week will help her efforts to reach Rio.
"Every time you watch the Olympics it's like, 'My God, I really want to be there,'" Recari said.
"I'm really excited. I think this week is going to be a huge boost towards the Olympics."