The International Olympic Committee executive board narrowed the field to two from a list of seven, which also included squash, karate and roller sports.
The board will submit golf and rugby sevens a faster-paced version of the standard 15-a-side game for ratification by the full 106-member IOC assembly in Copenhagen in October.
The board also gave final approval to the inclusion of womens boxing in the 2012 London Olympics. Boxing had been the only summer Olympic sport without women competitors.
Leaders of the seven sports bidding to be added to the 2016 games made presentations to the IOC board in June in Lausanne, Switzerland, and continued to lobby extensively. The attributes of each sport were contained in a report by the IOC program commission which was reviewed by the board Thursday before the vote.
Golf was played at the 1900 Paris Olympics and 1904 St. Louis Games. The sports backers say bringing the game back into the Olympics would help it develop worldwide, noting many governments only fund Olympic sports.
Tiger Woods and other top players have indicated they would play in the Olympics if golf gets the nod from the IOC.
Golf is a truly global sport and it should have been in the Olympics a while ago, Woods said Tuesday. If it does get in, it would be great for golf and some of the other small countries that are now emerging in golf.
Golf proposes a 72-hole stroke-play competition for men and women, with 60 players in each field. The worlds top 15 players would qualify automatically, and all major professional tours would alter tournament schedules to avoid a clash with the Olympics.
Rugby, which was played in four different Olympics between 1900 and 1924 in the full 15-a-side format, proposes the 7-a-side version for both men and women. The International Rugby Board would scrap its Sevens World Cup to ensure the Olympics is the sports top event.
Final approval of the two sports will require a simple majority vote by the full IOC in October. Its unclear whether they will be voted on individually or together.
Softball and baseball had been seeking a return after being voted off the program four years ago for the 2012 London Games. Attempted reinstatements were rejected by the IOC in 2006.
Softball, a womens event which debuted at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, has focused on spreading the sport among youth and women in the Muslim world and Africa, and staying free of doping scandals. It offered to organize a mens Olympic tournament as well if readmitted by the IOC.
Baseball which has failed to bring top players to the Olympics due to a scheduling clash with the U.S. major leagues offered a shortened five-day, eight-team format intended to ensure the participation of big-name stars.
In 2005, after voting to drop baseball and softball, IOC members rejected the five other sports put up for inclusion rugby, golf, karate, squash and roller sports. At that time, approval required a two-thirds majority.