How much does defending her Olympic gold medal mean to Inbee Park? Last year at this time, the 31-year-old Hall of Famer had yet to play an LPGA event. On Sunday, she’d already finished her fourth tournament of 2020, picking up career win number 20 at the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open.
The three-stroke victory over Amy Olson at Royal Adelaide Golf Club greatly helped Park’s chances of representing South Korea in Tokyo. To have a chance to repeat her 2016 Olympic victory, Park needs to both be within the top 15 of the Rolex Rankings and among the top four women from South Korea.
Her victory Down Under lifted Park from No. 17 to No. 11 in the Rolex Rankings and from sixth to fifth among Korean players. No. 1 Jin Young Ko, No. 3 Sung Hyun Park, No. 6 Sei Young Kim and No. 9 Jeongeun Lee6 are the South Korean qualifiers as of now. No. 13 Hyo-Joo Kim is sixth among Koreans and No. 18 So Yeon Ryu is seventh in the intense competition.
“It is going to be a big challenge for me to make the Korean team,” Park said before teeing it up at Royal Adelaide. “I probably have to win a couple of times early this season to try to make the team.”
If that’s the case, she’s halfway there. The cutoff for qualifying for the Olympics is the Rolex Rankings of June 29, the Monday after the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, which will be the third major of the year, following the ANA Inspiration and the U.S. Women’s Open.
“I’m really driving myself to play well,” Park said. “The Olympics is definitely in my mind, but even if I don’t [make the team] I really don’t have any regrets because I’ve experienced it in 2016. It’s fair to say that in 2016 that there was so much pressure and I was like, I’m not doing this ever, ever again, but I’m here again in 2020 already.”
Victory No. 20 moved Park into a tie for 26th on the all-time LPGA list with Laura Davies and Cristie Kerr. Se Ri Pak has the most wins among Koreans with 25. And Park’s $15,683,289 in career earnings is No. 4 all-time, trailing Kerr ($19.8 million), Karrie Webb ($20.3 million) and Annika Sorenstam ($22.6 million).
The victory in the Aussie Open ended a nearly two-year drought for Park, who last won at the 2018 Founders Cup. The most glaring statistical explanation for the winless streak involves her putting, which went from superhuman to merely mortal.
Last year she was No. 26 in putts per greens in regulation and No. 27 in total putts. In 2018, Park was No. 3 and No. 15. And in her monster season of 2013 – when she won three major championships – Park was No. 1 and No. 5.
“Everybody was like are you stuck on the 19th,” Park said, providing a cultural explanation after ending her winless streak. “It’s not the lucky number in Korea,” she said, before offering a more technical explanation.
“My putter really hasn’t been working the last couple of years,” she said. “I felt like I was hitting the ball just fine, just like I’ve won before, just like when I was hitting in 2013/14 when I was winning majors. So I was just trying to get that putter back and this week has been a really great putting week. That really tells you golf is all about putting.”
Park, who hit 52 of 60 fairways at Royal Adelaide and 52 of 72 greens, averaged 28 putts a day and never needed more than 30 putts in a round. In that monster 2013 season, Park averaged 29.05 putts per round.
While Park is trying to qualify for what is likely the most difficult team to make in all of sports – the South Korean women’s Olympic squad – it seems as if only one other country has a chance to qualify four players in the women’s competition – the United States.
The top two players in the Rolex Rankings from each country earn a spot in the Olympics but a nation can have as many as four players in the Games if they are all among the Rolex top 15.
Currently, No. 2 Nelly Korda, No. 5 Danielle Kang and No. 10 Lexi Thompson would qualify for the Americans. Within striking distance are No. 17 Jessica Korda and No. 19 Lizette Salas.
With the next three tournaments – Thailand, Singapore and China – postponed because of the coronavirus, these four early season events are even more important in terms of Olympic qualifying.
After the unexpected break, the run-up for Tokyo starts in earnest at the Founders Cup and Kia Classic before the first major at the ANA Inspiration. If Park’s prediction is correct, she’ll need another victory to qualify for the Olympics. But she sent a clear message in Australia – don’t count her out.