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Competition for S. Korean Olympic team heating up

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OCALA, Fla. – Winning the Coates Golf Championship this week will be more difficult than winning an Olympic gold medal.

A bunch of LPGA events this year will feature stronger, deeper fields than women will see in Rio de Janeiro this summer.

The Coates Golf Championship is host to 42 of the top 60 players in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings. If the Olympics were played today, it would be host to only 26 of the top 60.

While the Olympics won’t feature the deepest field in women’s golf, the games will feature a deeply diverse field with so many different nations represented. It will feature a lot of women from emerging golf nations. The Olympics might be the best business plan golf has put forth yet to grow the game. That’s the bottom line business deal to golf’s return to the Olympics. It’s why Belgium’s Chloe Leurquin at No. 425 in the world, Chile’s Paz Echeverria at No. 430 and Brazil’s Victoria Lovelady at No. 501 would be playing if the Olympics were staged today.

LPGA commissioner Mike Whan is hoping the Olympics will prove a boon to interest in the women’s game.

“When I talk to people from other Olympic sports, they say, `You know Mike, you have what all of us want. You have the distribution network to take advantage of a big exposure moment,’” Whan said. “If your sport is kayaking or diving, and you get one big Olympic lift, you can't leverage it on a worldwide basis to the next weekend and the weekend after that and the weekend after that. You may have an exciting Olympic moment, but it is difficult to turn that moment into a regular following.

“In my case, if you like what you see in Rio, the week after we are at the Canadian Women's Open. We are on TVs in 175 countries. If more people than ever before stumble into women's golf at the Olympics, there’s a path to keep following us. A lot of other Olympic sports don’t have that path.”

Yes, the competition won’t be nearly as deep in Rio as it will be at the U.S. Women’s Open or Ricoh Women’s British Open, but does it really matter? Does it really matter in how Olympic gold will be valued?

An Olympic gold medal weighs slightly more than one pound (531 grams), but the real weight of it can’t be measured so finitely. For a lot of women around the world, a gold medal will be weighted with more nationalistic pride than any other golf trophy they could possibly win.

Ask South Korea’s Sei Young Kim.

What would she rather win this year? The U.S. Women’s Open or a gold medal?

“A gold medal,” Kim said. “It would be bigger than winning a major, because this will be first time for us, first Olympics for us in golf. That’s what makes it so very big. The Olympics is the reason I came over to play the LPGA. I’m trying very hard to make the Olympic team, and the world rankings points you get playing the LPGA are so important.”

A gold medal’s importance varies in golf according to the country a player calls home.

“Whether I win an Olympic medal or not is not going to define my career or change whether I've fulfilled my career,” Australia’s Adam Scott, winner of the 2013 Masters, said last year. “It's nothing I've ever aspired to do, and I don't think I ever will. It's all about the four majors, and I think that's the way it should stay for golf.”

For South Korean women, the Olympic quest couldn’t be more intense. As the dominant force in women’s golf, interest in the projected makeup of the South Korean women’s Olympic team is high back in South Korea.

“A lot of Koreans are expecting a South Korean to win the gold medal,” said Na Yeon Choi, who is the defending champion at the Coates Golf Championship. “There is a lot of curiosity about who’s going to win it. So there’s going to be a lot of pressure to win it. There’s a lot of pressure now just to make the team.”

The Olympics will feature a field of 60 players in both the women’s and men’s competitions based on the world golf rankings. There’s a limit of two players per country who can qualify, unless players are among the top 15 in the world, then the limit is four players per country.

The fiercest battle being waged in women’s golf this year is over who’s going to make the South Korean team. There are eight South Koreans among the top 15 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings, compared to just three Americans, so jockeying to make the Korean team is already intense.

“Back home, every Monday, the media lists who the Olympic qualifiers are in golf,” said Choi, who is the ninth highest ranked South Korean at No. 19 in the world. “Every week, they calculate who’s in and who’s out.”

Hyo Joo Kim’s victory Sunday at the Pure Silk Bahamas Classic bumped her from No. 10 to No. 7 in the world rankings. More importantly, it moved her to the fourth highest ranked Korean woman in the world, vaulting her over In Gee Chun and Amy Yang. If the Olympics were staged today, the Korean team would be made up of Inbee Park (No. 2 in the world), Sei Young Kim (No. 5), So Yeon Ryu (No. 6) and Hyo Joo Kim.

While there will also be intense competition among American women to make the Olympic team, you don’t see Olympic women’s golf rankings in newspapers every Monday.

“A lot depends on how ingrained golf is in your country’s sports culture, if golf is part of your DNA,” said J.S. Kang of Sterling Sports Management, whose clients include South Koreans Seon Hwa Lee, Jeong Jang and Jennifer Song, who is also a U.S. citizen. “In South Korea, golf is still a relatively new game. The Olympics is just a bigger showcase. You grow up watching people stand on that podium, with the flag going up. That doesn’t happen in major championships in golf.

“If you win a gold medal in South Korea, the country rewards you financially. They don’t reward you if you win a major championship.”

The reward for winning a gold medal in Sochi two years ago was a lump sum payout of $62,500 for South Korean athletes, or monthly payment system that could ultimately net a player $250,000.

“When you are from a small country that doesn’t get a lot of athletic recognition, standing on the podium with a gold medal is the goal you grow up with and you dream about,” Kang said.

That’s why when South Koreans open the sports pages in their country Monday, they won’t be looking just to see how their countrywomen placed at the Coates Golf Championship. They’ll be looking to see how they’re placed in the newest Olympic women’s golf rankings.