Korea’s Inbee Park has completed a remarkable recovery from injury to win an Olympic gold medal and underline her status as one of the modern greats of women’s golf.
The 28-year-old carded a sublime five under 66 at Reserva de Marapendi Golf Course in Rio to win the first women’s golf tournament since 1900 by five shots from World No.1 Lydia Ko. China’s Shanshan Feng finished a further shot back. Park finished on 16 under (268) after scores of 66-66-70-66.
Park turned the final day in front of a sell-out crowd into a stunning exhibition of brilliantly controlled golf, extending her lead from two strokes overnight into a commanding five-shot victory over New Zealander Ko, who rolled in a seven-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole for a 69 and 273 total to claim the silver medal. Feng matched Ko’s closing score to take the bronze on 274.
Park’s victory was made all the more incredible by what she has had to overcome in 2016 just to get to Rio.
A month ago she was unsure if she would even make it the Olympics after battling a left thumb injury all year. The injury flared up in the new year and continued to hamper her well into the season. The former World No.1 tried to play through it. She took extended periods off and, prior to Rio, had not played in an LPGA event since early June, where she missed the cut at the KPMG PGA Championship. She withdrew from the Women’s British Open, where she was the defending champion, to concentrate on her Olympic campaign.
Then the rumors began … whispers suggesting the injury would make the decision, to retire and start a family, an easy one.
A fortnight ago, she played in a Korean LPGA tournament to test the thumb and missed the cut there too, which sparked many her homeland to question why she was taking the Olympic spot ahead of several players in much better form.
Korean Team captain Se Ri Pak stood by the seven-time major champion and career grand slam winner. Park would not be replaced.
Having not broken 70 in any round since April, a stoic Park did it three times in Rio. And the last of those came under pressure in the final round.
There was no disputing the supreme talent of the youngest player ever to qualify for the World Golf Hall of Fame. She delivered a masterclass in precision golf, accruing seven birdies – offset by two back-nine bogies – in holding the opposition at arm’s length all day.
The new Olympic champion hugged her equally emotional three Korean team-mates after holing out for a regulation par five at the 18th hole.
“This is definitely one of the special moments in my golfing career and in my whole life,” Park said later. “It feels great. Obviously representing your country and winning the gold is so special. It's just really all I've wanted.”
“I think this definitely at the top because you know, this is something I've never done before. I've won majors, but I haven't won a gold medal, so this feels definitely very, very special and nothing I want to change." – Inbee Park, Olympic Champion
“This is something I've really been dreaming of coming into the week. There were so many Korean people out here supporting me and it almost felt like we were in Korea.
“Seeing how much support I had this week, I’m just happy that I finished well. This is definitely a big relief.”
Park then offered a huge endorsement for golf’s ongoing participation in the Olympics by ranking her victory alongside her majors.
“I think this definitely at the top because you know, this is something I've never done before," Park said. "I've won majors, but I haven't won a gold medal, so this feels definitely very, very special and nothing I want to change.
“It's a special week and special feeling, and I'm so honoured to represent my country. Being able to receive the gold medal on the golf course was an unforgettable moment.”
Ko, still only a teenager and surely set to compete in Tokyo in four years’ time, fought hard to close the gap on the Korean, but ultimately Park’s advantage was seldom under threat.
“I didn't have a great start, but I just tried to hang in there,” Ko said. “I can't believe I'm holding a medal on the podium – it's what I've been dreaming about since 2009. To actually be there beside Inbee and Shanshan, is a dream come true. This has been just an amazing week.”
Ko knew that she had to get up and down from beside the 18th green to avoid a play-off for silver and bronze with Feng, and did so brilliantly. “My celebration was as if I won the gold! It’s pretty cool,” she laughed.
West Australia’s Minjee Lee finished two shots adrift of forcing a bronze medal play-off with Feng after a closing round 67, while Victoria’s Su Oh will lament dropping three shots on the back nine of her final round 70 that saw her tumble from a possible top-five finish to be equal 13th.
Lee, who carded four birdies in her last seven holes, finished tied for seventh alongside Canadian teenager Brooke Henderson and Briton Charley Hull.
She said she was proud of her efforts over the four days but was left to reflect on missed opportunities late in the final round.
“I think I could have made the putts on 16 and 17 – but you know that’s golf and you can’t win them all,” Lee said. “But I do feel I have made Australia proud and I feel pretty good. I hit the ball good, I putted well.
“On the back nine I just told myself I had to play well and give myself a lot of chances. I probably couldn’t have done much better than what I did today. I’m better when I’m under the pump but I gave it my all. And even though I came up a little short, I’m happy.”
Oh started her final round strongly, moving to within two shots of the bronze medal position following back-to-back birdies at the 10th and 11th holes.
But a double bogey on the 13th, when she missed the green with her approach and her bunker recovery flew across the green into another before two putting, saw the hand brake applied to any leaderboard momentum.
“I only really hit that one bad shot today which was really difficult to recover from,” Oh said. “It could have happened at any time but it probably hurt a lot more because of when it did happen. It was quite emotional as I knew it was going to be too tough to get that medal spot but I just kept working and giving it my all.
“The experience was really special. We have something like 36 events on the LPGA so if you have one bad week you pick yourself up and move onto the next one but this one only comes around every four years.”
And to prove there was a really low score to be yielded from the Olympic layout on the final day, Russia’s Maria Verchenova smashed the course record by firing a nine under 62, assisted by a hole-in-one at the 4th, to climb 25 places into a tie for 18th at the conclusion of a highly successful return to the Olympic Games for women’s golf.
As a result of today’s outcome, it means that all six medals awarded in the two golf competitions were distributed among six different nations – Korea, New Zealand and China in the women’s competition and Great Britain (Justin Rose), Sweden (Henrik Stenson) and the United States (Matt Kuchar) in last week’s men’s contest.