Park’s gold medal performance in Rio captures the world
Arms held over her head in triumph, Inbee Park showed about as much emotion as you are likely ever to see from the stoic South Korean golfer.
Her par putt didn’t matter, as she had a big lead walking up the 18th fairway, the gold medal all but secured. But it went in regardless, capping a remarkable week of golf for the LPGA Hall of Famer that was as much surprising as it was dominating.
And perhaps it was a relief, too.
Expectations are high, perhaps overwhelming, in her homeland. There was talk of the South Korean golfers sweeping the podium, a ridiculous notion perhaps, but one that nonetheless was not out of the realm of possibility.
But Park did what she came to do – not just earning a medal, but the gold medal.
“This is definitely one of the most special moments in my golfing career and whole life,” said the 28-year-old former world number one. “This feels great. Obviously representing your country, winning the gold, it’s so special. It’s just really all I’ve wanted. I’m just happy.”
Park shot a final-round 66 and pulled away early as the number one ranked player in the world, Lydia Ko from New Zealand, and the American Gerina Piller struggled.
Ko holed a seven-footer for birdie on the last hole to edge out China’s Shanshan Feng for silver.
American Stacy Lewis finished one shot out of a medal and Piller fell back to a tie for 11th, but all of them would have had a tough time overtaking Park on this day, so steady was her play, so good was her putting.
Incredible as it is to believe, a month ago Park was unsure if she would even be coming to Rio.
She has battled a left thumb injury all year. It started in the off-season and lingered. She tried to play through it. She tried rest. She tried a little of both. But Park had not played in an LPGA event since the KPMG PGA in early June, where she missed the cut.
Just two weeks ago, she participated in a Korean LPGA event and missed the cut there, too.
“I had a lot of attention coming into this week,” she said. “Whether it was a worry or whether it was people thinking she’s going to do good, there was a little bit of confusion from me whether I can perform well this week or not, because I really haven’t performed well this year with the injury.
“Being able to overcome injury this week and being able to play good, I’ve worked really hard for this week and hard work really paid off this week, so I’m really happy.”
Park has 17 career LPGA Tour titles, including seven major championships.
In 2013, she became the first player to win the first three majors in a year, her streak stopped at the Women’s British Open by Lewis.
The two battled for the number one ranking for the better part of two years.
“I don’t think people understand at all; if you watch her, or even Lydia, watch both of them play golf, you’re not going to be wowed,” Lewis said. “You’re not going to be amazed. But if you watch it over a period of time, you’ll be amazed, and people just maybe don’t pay attention that much.
“Coming back from an injury and not playing and not being competitive, that’s a hard thing to do. And the way she won this week was impressive.”
After having not shot a round in the 60s since April, Park did it three times in Rio.
She got into contention the first day and barely wavered. For a moment on Saturday, things got a bit dicey when Park bogeyed the 10th hole to see her lead shrink to three shots. But that was still more than it was at the start of the day, and it was only a momentary issue. She was never threatened the rest of the way.
Whether the pressure will let up at home is difficult to know. Park never shows it outwardly, only speaking to it when asked. The game is nearly an obsession, especially among women, in South Korea, dating to the days of Se Ri Pak, who served as team leader this week for the four South Korean women in the field.
When Pak won the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open and embarked on her own Hall of Fame career, she sparked a surge in golf interest that has never subsided.
“In South Korea, Olympic achievement tips any other athletic achievement,” said Ty Votaw, vice president of the International Golf Federation, former commissioner of the LPGA Tour and now an executive with the PGA Tour.
“Having a gold medal winner in golf will only validate with an exclamation point what that country has achieved in golf over the past two decades, especially women’s golf.”
Park had said before the tournament that just competing in the Olympics was an honour and that even with all she’s done, a gold medal would likely be the highlight of her career.
Written by Lali Stander on behalf of the South African Golf Association, Womens Golf South Africa, Sunshine Ladies Tour and WPGA.