Last week, Korean women’s golf superstar Inbee Park captured the first gold medal in Olympic golf in over a hundred years. Park, the only Hall of Famer in the field for either gender, came into the week surrounded by questions. Was she healthy enough to even contend? Was she too rusty after having not played LPGA golf for two months? How would she produce scores necessary to be a factor when most of her rounds the past three months have been over par? Even the media in her homeland were not so subtly suggesting she should give up her spot to another golfer. But Inbee didn’t get into the Hall of Fame because she is a quitter, and in the end, she stunned the world by capturing the gold in dominating fashion. Just like the Inbee Park of old.
Inbee Park is without question the greatest female golfer of her generation, but in America she rarely gets the acclaim she deserves for her accomplishments. I think this is because she violates so many of the perceived ideal qualities that golf writers think a superstar should have. For instance, they often champion players who are long off the tee; Inbee is middle of the pack in driving distance. Golfers who boast about their talent or are in your face get more attention; Park is as quiet as can be. Inbee is not glamorous or fashionable. Many writers are biased towards Americans, and she is from Asia. Writers love emotional players, and Inbee’s trademark is her poker face. But regardless of who gets the most ink in the golf world, make no mistake about it: Inbee’s success is for real and without peer in her generation. Not long ago, she was the top player in the world for more than a year. She has won 6 Majors in the past four years; the next nearest player in that span has won two. She is the first player to qualify for the LPGA’s Hall of Fame in nearly ten years. And now, she is the first Olympic gold medalist of the modern era.
Before Rio, 2016 had been the toughest season of Inbee’s career. The previous season had been another phenomenal one for her. She won five times, including two Majors, collected the Vare Trophy for low scoring average, and came within a hair’s width of getting the Player of the Year. The Vare win also pushed her over the number of points needed for her to qualify for the Hall of Fame. All she needed to become the second Korean to enter the Hall was to complete ten events in 2016, her tenth season on tour. The hard requirements seemed to be done; but who could have guessed that getting those ten events would prove to be as challenging as it would turn out to be?
Inbee started the year nursing a lower back injury that had hampered her preparation for the season. In her first competitive round of the year in the Bahamas, she shot an 80, one of the worst scores of her career. She dropped out after that. It was an omen of things to come.
Park finally started to get over the back troubles in March and had a few good finishes, including a runner-up at the Kia Classic and a top ten at the ANA Inspiration the following week. But then a new problem emerged. She had strained a ligament in her thumb, and this was the kind of injury that could only be healed through several months of time away from golf. She tried to power her way through it, resulting in a bunch of terrible results. After finishing 68th in Hawaii in April, she would not finish another four round tournament until the Olympics. Her next three appearances included an 84, the worst score of her professional career.
Finally she limped into the KPMG, the year’s second Major and her tenth event. She managed to play one decent round and one terrible round, missing the cut in an event she had won the previous three years. But the big story was that, at the end of round one, she officially qualified for the Hall of Fame. She was greeted at the 18th green by a raft of Hall of Famers, including Se Ri Pak and Annika Sorenstam, many holding silly Inbee Park masks in their hands. Inbee was now officially one of the all time greats.
After that, she disappeared from the scene. She skipped the next two Majors, including the Women’s British Open, where she was defending champion. She also passed on the International Crown, giving up her spot to good friend So Yeon Ryu. With all her struggles, it seemed unlikely she would even tee it up in Rio for the Olympics. But she continued to hold onto the hope that it could happen.
A quick word about the qualifying process for the Olympics. The Korean women’s golf team might have been the hardest to qualify for in all of sports. Only the top four Koreans as of July 11th would make the team, and there were around ten ladies who had a reasonable chance of being in that top four. The Korean media relentlessly covered the race to make the team, to the point where the top golfers in the hunt became quite frazzled when they even thought of it. In the end, the four who qualified were Inbee Park, In Gee Chun, Sei Young Kim and Amy Yang. Korean golf legend Se Ri Pak was made the coach of the squad.
Inbee was the only player whose ranking was so high that she was a lock to make the team, but as her struggles continued, many in the Korean media questioned whether she ought to give up her spot for another golfer who was in better form. The first alternate was Ha Na Jang, who had won twice in 2016 and finished in the top five just weeks before at the British Open. The second alternate was So Yeon Ryu, who had not only starred on the recent International Crown team, but had also managed her own top ten at the British.
Inbee was disappointed that she would be questioned like this, but soldiered on, working to insure her trip to Rio would be a fruitful one. Quietly, she hired a second swing coach to help her to adapt her swing to the injury. She rested a lot, and the thumb got a little better. She reappeared just as the Olympics started, playing a Korean LPGA event, where she missed the cut. But though she didn’t play well there, the experience allowed her to pinpoint the things she needed to work on for Rio.
As the Olympic women’s golf event started on Wednesday, August 17, Inbee got out of the gate fast and didn’t let up. She shot a 5 under par 66, which put her into a tie for second place with her teammate Sei Young Kim and just one shot out of the lead held by Thai star Ariya Jutanugarn. That was impressive to say the least. But could Park follow up that round? Would her thumb cooperate?
The answer was a resounding yes. She shot a second straight 66 on day two. Now she was not only the best positioned of the Koreans, she was in the lead. Trailing right behind her was her old nemesis Stacy Lewis, with whom she had exchanged the top ranking several times a few years ago. The challenges were just beginning.
Day three was the hardest round of the tournament. The weather got tough, especially in the afternoon, with high winds playing havoc with their shots. Inbee did not buckle. Although she shot her worst score, a 70, it was still better than many of the others could manage. Lewis, for instance, produced a 76. By the end of the day, Inbee had increased her lead to two strokes, but now her nearest follower was world #1 Lydia Ko. They would play together in the final round. If Park made even one mistake, Ko might pounce.
Park might never have faced so much pressure in her life. The Olympic medal was a huge prize to the Korean fans, and she was best positioned to take the gold for her country. There were two other Koreans, In Gee Chun and Amy Yang, tied for fifth, but they were far enough back that getting any medal might be tricky. As it turned out, Chun was not a factor on the final day, but Yang made a run and came just one shot short of the bronze.
The tension was insane: back home, all three Korean networks were televising this final round, and so many people ended up tuning in that, despite the fact the event finished past 2 AM Korean time, the ratings would rank as the all time highest in that country for a golf tournament, even surpassing those for Se Ri Pak’s immortal US Women’s Open win in 1998. Faced with all this enormous pressure, enough to break almost anyone, and despite her lack of tournament readiness and the thumb injury, Inbee responded like the Hall of Famer she is, shooting one of the greatest rounds of her career to cap off her gold medal quest. The message she sent her doubters was loud and clear: never underestimate the heart of a champion!
She reeled off three straight birdies starting on the third hole, added another a few holes later, and by the turn had increased her lead from 2 to 6 shots. She made a couple of mistakes after that, and the lead shrunk to as little as three, but every time it looked like she might buckle, she hit another iron close or sank another long birdie to demoralize her opponents. Nobody could do a thing to stop her: not Ko, not Lewis, not the other Koreans. Inbee chose Rio and the biggest stage of her career to produce her masterpiece.
After the win, Se Ri Pak, who was there to coach the ladies, was beside herself with emotion. But even on the medal stand, Inbee remained a cool customer, with a slight smile and just the tiniest hint of a tear in her eye. When she returned home a few days later, she was greeted at the airport by an enormous mob of reporters and fans, even though it was well past midnight when she landed. She placed her gold medal around the neck of her grandfather, who had come to greet her. Beaming with pride, he claimed that Inbee was now ‘all of Korea’s daughter’.
If Inbee does not play another round of golf the rest of the year, she showed with her amazing performance in Rio that she is still able to produce magic, even in the depths of the worst sustained slump of her career. Even at 80% health (by her estimation) she was able to topple a field with 9 of the top 10 women golfers in the world to claim the prize they all wanted. And like Se Ri inspired a generation, no doubt Inbee Park’s gold medal victory has stirred the hearts of thousands of young girls in her homeland, who will now dream of one day standing on the Olympic platform like Inbee did.