It’s early, a time on the calendar when Inbee Park is usually at home with her husband and her dog, Rio, named after the city where she won women’s golf’s first Olympic gold medal in more than a century. But Rio - the city, not the dog - is one of the reasons Park added the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions to her schedule.
“I always start the season a little bit late, probably the end of February or early March,” Park said. “This year I'm starting early because it's an important year with the Olympics in the summer.”
She remembers the cheers from Rio four years ago, the excitement of meeting athletes from other sports and the overwhelming emotions that come with standing on a podium, gold on a ribbon hanging around your neck, as the flag goes up and your nation’s anthem is played. She remembers the response at home after her gold medal round set a record as the most-watched women’s golf event in Korean history. She remembered the roars, two years after Rio, when she was asked to carry the torch into Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium for the Winter Games in Korea.
And she wants those feelings again.
“(Making the 2020 Olympic team) is definitely a goal for me and definitely a goal for a lot of my fellow Korean players,” Park said. “I think that will definitely motivate us this year, especially because the rankings (to qualify for the team) cut off in June. So I want to play as many events as I can before (then) and give myself some opportunities to play good golf before then so I feel like I’m in shape.”
When asked if the Korean women’s golf team was the toughest Olympic team in the world to make, Park deferred, saying, “The U.S. men's team is pretty tough as well,” she said. “But in women's golf, I think it has to be, yeah, definitely (the Korean team) is the toughest team to make.”
Olympic qualifications cut off after the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at the end of June. Were they to close today, the four Korean players headed to Japan would be Jin Young Ko, the No. 1-ranked player in the Rolex Rankings, Sung Hyun Park, a two-time major champion currently ranked No. 2 in the world, Sei Young Kim, No. 5 in the Rolex Rankings and winner of last year’s CME Group Tour Championship, and Jeongeun Lee6, No. 7 in the world and the reigning U.S. Women’s Open champion.
Park, the youngest player in history to be inducted into the LPGA Hall of Fame, was just voted Player of the Decade by fans on all LPGA social media platforms. But the reigning gold medalist is currently the second alternate, ranked 16th in the world.
Oddly enough, the last time she made a January start was in 2016, the year of the Rio Olympic games.
“When I get an opportunity to see the media, the first question is definitely about the Olympics, like ‘How much do you want to be on there? What's your motivation this year? Why are you playing the season so early? Is it because of the Olympics?’” Park said. “Yeah, I definitely get those questions a lot.
“No matter how I say it, it's definitely an important year for me. Whether I get an opportunity (to go to Japan for the 2020 Olympic games) or whether I don't, I think I just want to have a season that I won't regret. I just want to give myself a lot of opportunities.”
The last time she was given such an opportunity, Park seized upon it in ways no one saw coming. Prior to the 2016 Olympics, Park battled a myriad of injuries. She didn’t look like herself, on or off the course. From the first of April that year, she only finished one event, a tie for 68th at the LOTTE Championship in Hawaii. After that, she withdrew twice and missed a cut before hanging it up for the summer. Many critics said she should withdraw from the games and allow So Yeon Ryu (Park’s best friend) to fill in as first alternate.
Instead, Park won gold.
“Before (the 2016 games), I didn't know what the Olympics was going to be like or how important it was going to be for a professional golfer,” Park said. “Was it going to be more important than the major championships? I had a lot of questions. But definitely after I experienced one, I felt like it was something that I should make the first priority in my career.
“It’s definitely worth (the effort). This (2020) Olympic opportunity is a big priority in my career. It’s probably my last one, I'm thinking, if I get the opportunity. So, yeah, I'm just happy to be where I'm positioned. It's good that I have an opportunity. Whether I'm in or not, I think it's worth having a go.”