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Kiwi Ko the woman to beat at Rio Games

Jul 10, 2016; San Martin, CA, USA; Lydia Ko does a ball drop on the ninth hole during the final round of the women's 2016 U.S. Open golf tournament at CordeValle Golf Club. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports - RTSH8XN
Jul 10, 2016; San Martin, CA, USA; Lydia Ko does a ball drop on the ninth hole during the final round of the women's 2016 U.S. Open golf tournament at CordeValle Golf Club. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports - RTSH8XN

By Liana B. Baker

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Red-hot New Zealander Lydia Ko is a force whenever she tees it up in a tournament but the world number one is far from a shoo-in for gold in women's golf in Rio where, unlike on the men's side, the top players will be competing.

Ko has won two major championships on the LPGA Tour in the last 12 months and finished no worse than a tie for third in the other three, a remarkable level of consistency that suggests she will be on the medal podium.

But the 19-year-old dynamo will be in tough against a deep field at the Aug. 5-21 Rio Olympics that will feature all of her main rivals.

South Korea will have the biggest representation of all competing nations with four players ranked inside the top nine, but the vagaries of golf and the depth of international talent in the women's game make confident predictions difficult.

Still, while three of the South Koreans -- Kim Sei-young, Amy Yang and Chun In-gee -- have both the talent and form to challenge for a medal, Ko is likely to start the nominal favourite.

South Korea's fourth entrant, seven-times major champion Park In-bee, has struggled recently with injuries and would need a sudden change in form to be in the medal hunt.

Canadian world number two Brooke Henderson, 18, will be oozing confidence as she arrives in Rio having won her first major title at June's PGA Championship before grabbing her second win of the season three weeks later.

The Olympic qualifying regulations have allowed only South Korea and the United States to field more than two players.

Other players to watch are top-ranked American Lexi Thompson, world number six Ariya Jutanugarn of Thailand and Anna Nordqvist of Sweden, who is ranked 11th in the world.

Jutanugarn has been in sizzling form this year, piling up three consecutive victories on the LPGA Tour and shedding a reputation as a player who could not close the deal after she had previously squandered several chances of winning.

American Gerina Piller, ranked 15th, qualified at the last minute after a strong showing at the U.S. Women's Open in July to take the third and final U.S. spot.

Others with the ability to contend include American Stacy Lewis, Japan's Haru Nomura, Australian Minjee Lee and China's Shanshan Feng.

Nobody will have an advantage of knowing the newly-built Reserva de Marapendi layout and it remains to be seen whether it will be set up to favour power or precision.

Either way, the Aug. 17-20 event will be more competitive than in the previous women's Olympic golf tournament in Paris in 1900, when American socialite Margaret Abbott beat a small field to win the gold medal.

According to the "Complete Book of the Olympics", Abbott later said she won only "because all the French girls apparently misunderstood the nature of the game scheduled for that day and turned up to play in high heels and tight skirts".

(Reporting by Liana B. Baker in San Francisco; Editing by Frank Pingue and Andrew Both)

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