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AUGUSTA, Ga. – When golf returns to the Olympics in Rio, the winners will receive more than a gold medal.
They'll also get a free pass to all the major championships.
The governing bodies for men's and women's golf announced the exemptions Monday at Augusta National, adding a little extra incentive for the Olympic champions.
The men's winner will be assured of a spot in the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship in 2017. The winner on the women's side will automatically qualify for their final major of 2016, the Evian Championship in September, and the first four majors the following year: ANA Inspiration, Women's PGA Championship, U.S. Women's Open and Women's British Open.
While the winner might already be qualified for the major championships, limits on the number of players who can represent each country at the Olympics could clear the way for a lower-ranked player to claim the exemptions.
"Whether it's someone that is in the top rankings in the world or someone who is a Cinderella story, in both ways it's a positive," said Pete Bevacqua, chief executive officer of the PGA of America.
Some players are skeptical that the Olympics will carry nearly as much importance as the men's majors or the Ryder Cup, and there have also been complaints about a trip to South America in early August adding to the grind of an already packed schedule.
Billy Payne, the chairman of Augusta National and head of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, shrugged off those who question the need for golf in the Summer Games.
"There is nothing — nothing — more powerful than representing your country," Payne said. "I suspect that you will see that take over and totally capture the enthusiasm of the players for golf."
Payne and other leaders in the sport are counting on the Olympics to expand golf's global reach.
"We believe our game's visibility will be dramatically elevated by the global platform that only the Olympics offer," Payne said. "New audiences from all over the globe, some for the very first time ever, will be exposed to our great sport and come to know and appreciate the amazing athletes and heroes in golf."
RORY'S ACE: Rory McIlroy had the patrons roaring at Augusta National.
And it was only Monday.
McIlroy made a hole-in-one at the 16th hole during a Masters practice round, holing out a 7-iron from 170 yards.
"I don't think I've ever heard a roar that large in a practice round," said McIlroy, who will be trying to complete his career grand slam in the first major of the year.
For good measure, the ace clinched McIlroy's personal match with buddy Chris Wood.
"When he closes out with a hole-in-one to beat me 3-and-2, you can't really do a lot about that," Wood said. "I've never quite heard a noise like it. It was pretty mad."
Wood still had his tee shot to go, but he knew the match was over.
"When the crowd are chanting 'Rory! Rory!' and you've got to try and hit a 7-iron to that flag, there's not much chance," Wood said.
ZACH RECLAIMS THE JUG: British Open Zach Johnson has allowed his closest friends and advisers to spend time with the claret jug.
But Johnson got it back this week.
Looking for a bit of inspiration heading into the Masters, he has golf's oldest trophy with him in Augusta.
"Staring at that thing and touching it gives you a lift," he said.
Johnson won his first major title at the Masters in 2007. He captured his second at St. Andrews last summer, claiming the claret jug in a playoff.
"I might try to introduce it to Mr. Green Jacket," he joked. "You're talking about two of the biggest, iconic symbols in sports. To have the honor to don the green jacket and drink out of the claret jug is pretty special."
AMATEUR ADVICE: Chinese amateur Cheng Jin got a chance to play a practice round with the world's top-ranked player, Jason Day.
Did the Aussie have any advice for the 18-year-old?
"He asked me if I'm going to get nervous or not," Cheng said. "I'm like, 'Yeah, for sure.' "
"He said it's normal and good to get nervous," Cheng said, "but when we come to the shot, we've got to get focused."
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry.