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Zanotti looks to grow Paraguayan golf with Olympic appearance

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One-by-one the world’s best players were asked the year’s most ubiquitous question: Would you rather win a major or a gold medal in 2016?

“Major championship,” said Rory McIlroy without a moment of hesitation. “I think a major championship is the pinnacle of our sport.”

World No. 1 Jordan Spieth was a little more careful with his response: “Both,” he smiled. “That's a question that really only would get me in trouble to actually answer.”

There is no right answer, not for the game’s biggest names, who have been conditioned since they first laid an over-lapping grip on a golf club that major championships stand above all else.

But as Fabrizio Zanotti slumps into a leather chair in the Abu Dhabi Golf Club clubhouse at a recent European Tour event a more appropriate question arrives like an epiphany.

For a player like Zanotti, a 32-year-old with an easy smile who grew up in Paraguay, what would have a greater impact on his country – a bronze medal in August in Rio or a third-place finish in April at Augusta National?

“If I’m going to finish third [at the Masters], I’d prefer a bronze medal. For Paraguay, it’s going to be much bigger than a third at the Masters,” Zanotti said. “For Paraguay, for sure. I think Paraguay only has one [Olympic] medal in the history, in soccer. It’s going to be huge.”

Although it will be the game’s stars who will be under the microscope when golf returns to the Olympics this year, it’s the likes of Zanotti who possess the potential to make the kind of impact organizers hoped for when golf returns to the Games.

Video: Zanotti wins 2014 BMW International Open in playoff

At 119th in the Official World Golf Ranking, Zanotti is virtually unknown to U.S. golf fans and after eight years on the European Tour he doesn’t have much traction on the Continent either. But in Paraguay, where golf is dwarfed by soccer, he has the chance to be a trailblazer.

Currently, Paraguay has just three athletes qualified to play in this summer’s Games, and two of those currently bound for Brazil are golfers – Zanotti and LPGA veteran Julieta Granada.

It’s the type of exclusive club that Zanotti says has thrust golf into a rare spotlight in Paraguay, where, like many South American countries, golf is the definition of a niche sport.

“I tell you how many golf courses we have,” Zanotti smiled. “We have six golf course’s in all the country [of 6.8 million people].”

One of those bastions of the ancient game is Yath y Golf Club Paraguayo in Asuncion where Zanotti grew up playing the game.

“My father was a member. He played golf and I was there always with him since I was a little kid. Watching him competing with his friends and I never stop playing,” said Zanotti, who started playing when he was 6 years old.

Zanotti stopped playing soccer to focus on golf and elected to skip a potential college career in the United States to turn pro, a move that paid off in 2007 when he won the Abierto Mexicano Corona, an event co-sanctioned by the Challenge Tour that paved the way for his journey to Europe.

For Zanotti progress has always come in measured steps and it would be another seven years before his next breakthrough, winning the 2014 BMW International Open in a playoff that included the likes of Henrik Stenson.

“It was very tough for me at the beginning to play in Europe with the weather,” said Zanotti, who finished 26th last season on the European Tour in earnings. “Playing in the wind and the rain and the cold, it was pretty hard. But after two years I get used to it and start liking to play in that weather.”

Zanotti has modeled his career after Carlos Franco, Paraguay’s most famous golfer who won four times on the PGA Tour and mentored Zanotti during the 2007 World Cup when the two were teamed together.

“He was great with me,” Zanotti said.

Franco, who didn’t win on the PGA Tour until he was 34 years old and played his best golf late into his 40s, has also provided Zanotti with an example of perseverance.

Zanotti remembers, for example, the year Franco finished tied for seventh at the Masters in 2000. Growing up in Paraguay, Zanotti’s only exposure to professional golf was during the majors. It’s what drove him to golf when all of his friends gravitated to soccer.

“I always liked to watch the Masters on TV. I remember the time Greg Norman and Nick Faldo played against each other [1996], I watched them and imagined me there also,” Zanotti said.

But the Olympics transcend the traditional hierarchy of Grand Slam success. For a developing golf country like Paraguay, this year’s Games represent a chance to bring golf to the masses beyond the occasional cameo during the season’s majors.

Zanotti – who, because of how players will be selected to play this year’s Games, is virtually assured a spot in the Olympic field – said he plans to make the most of the experience, including showing up early for the Opening Ceremony and the Parade of Nations.

“It’s going to be a great experience. It’s a new experience, I want to live it,” said Zanotti, who considering the limited Olympic contingent from Paraguay likes his chances to be able to carry his nation’s flag in that Parade of Nations. “There is not going to be a big group of people there, no more than eight or nine.”

From small things, however, Zanotti is confident big things can happen for golf.

“Everybody in Paraguay is looking forward to us playing,” he said. “People can’t believe it, we have three sports qualified and two are golfers. Golf in Paraguay gives people a lot of satisfaction.”