Inbee Park’s climb atop the medal podium at the Olympic Golf Course in Rio Saturday took her soaring to rarefied air, to a stratosphere only Se Ri Pak knows in a Korean nation that reveres women’s golf.
With a gold medal around her neck, with a victory rivaling Pak’s historic triumph at the U.S. Women’s Open 18 years ago, Park towered transcendentally.
Igniting nationalistic passions in ways Pak first did winning at Blackwolf Run, Park solidified her place in Korean sporting lore.
“Queenbee makes history at the Olympics” screamed a headline Sunday in the Korean Times.
Pak will always be remembered for inspiring a nation to become a golf power, but Park may have finally moved out of Pak’s shadow as the most accomplished Korean player. Park turned Pak’s legacy into gold, the first gold medal in the history of women’s golf. Yes, the first, because when Margaret Abbott shot 47 to win first place in a nine-hole Olympic competition in Paris in 1900, she didn’t take home gold. Abbott took home a porcelain bowl.
Park, 28, is the only Korean to win an LPGA Player of the Year Award and the only two-time Korean winner of the Vare Trophy for low scoring average. Park and Jiyai Shin are the only Koreans to hold the Rolex world No. 1 ranking. Park has won seven major championships to Pak’s five, and now Park has Olympic gold on her resume.
Just like Pak did all those years ago, Park kept a nation bursting with pride awake into the wee morning hours. When Park took the medal stand, it was 2:08 in the morning back in Seoul and yet legions of viewers were tuned in watching.
The moment was televised live by three different Korean networks.
KBS, MBC and SBS television were all broadcasting.
Nielsen Korea reported the networks combined for an overnight claim to 23.9 percent of Korean viewership, according to the Yonhap News Agency. That’s about 10 times the ratings an average LPGA event gets there, and LPGA golf is a popular sports staple. It dwarfed the ratings of every men’s major championship played this year.
Sean Pyun, the LPGA’s Korean-American managing director of international business affairs, told GolfChannel.com that Park’s victory is believed to be the most watched women’s golf event ever in South Korea.
“The only telecast that may be comparable would be Se Ri’s U.S. Women’s Open victory in '98,” Pyun said.
How popular is women’s golf in South Korea? When the Koreans met the Americans in a wild-card playoff at the International Crown two years ago, it was the most watched golf event in the country that year. The ratings were more than double what the Masters got in South Korea.
Na Yeon Choi, winner of the 2012 U.S. Women’s Open, said she got emotional doing TV commentary for MBC when Park claimed the gold medal.
“I almost cried on air,” Choi told GolfChannel.com in a telephone interview Sunday. “I’m sure Inbee had so much pressure on her, because back in Korea, they really expect athletes to win medals. I saw Inbee and the Korean players in practice on Monday and Tuesday, and they were smiling, but you could sense all the pressure on their shoulders.
“I was texting with Inbee during the week, and she sent a text saying she felt sorry for some of our athletes who didn’t win medals. She felt badly seeing some of them crying and apologizing for not winning medals.”
Battling injuries all year, with Korean fans back in her homeland wondering if she should have given up her Olympic spot, Park may have felt more pressure than any Korean athlete. In the end, it made her victory all the more satisfying.
“Inbee is the star of this Olympics for Korea,” Pyun said.
South Korean president Park Geun-hye sent a special message to Inbee on Sunday morning congratulating her, according to the Yonhap News Agency.
Park didn’t just win gold in the Olympics. She won pulling away, in a dominant effort reminiscent of Katie Ledecky and Michael Phelps in swimming, of Usain Bolt in track and field. Park won by five shots.
“Winning the gold medal, I think Inbee has done everything you can do now in women’s golf,” So Yeon Ryu, the 2011 U.S. Women’s Open winner, told GolfChannel.com. “I always thought Inbee was an incredible woman, and now I know just how incredible she is.”
The LPGA credits Park with a career Grand Slam, having won the ANA Inspiration once, the Ricoh Women’s British Open once, the U.S. Women’s Open twice and the KPMG Women’s PGA (formerly the LPGA Championship) three times. She also won the Evian Championship, before it was designated a major.
How does she rank a gold medal against all her majors?
“I think definitely at the top,” Park said. “This is something I’ve never done before. This definitely feels very, very special. Being able to receive the gold medal was an unforgettable moment.”
In what has been a frustrating year plagued by a back injury and a left thumb injury, Park has made it memorable nonetheless. Struggling with nagging inflammation in both a tendon and ligament in her thumb in June, she played through the pain to officially qualify for the LPGA Hall of Fame at the Women’s PGA Championship. She left Sahalee, however, with more doubt than ever following her after missing the cut there and announcing she would take an extended leave to heal. She withdrew from the U.S. Women’s Open and the Women’s British Open, where she was the defending champion.
Two weeks before the Olympics, in her first start in two months, Park missed the cut at a Korean LPGA Tour event. She was going to Rio having missed the cut or withdrawn in her last four starts. The struggles set off a debate back in her homeland over whether she should give up her Olympic spot.
“Inbee has accomplished so much, nobody’s ever really had bad things to say about her,” Ryu said. “But all of a sudden, people were saying bad things, that she should give up her spot to give another Korean a chance. It was hard for her to handle that.”
Ryu was roomates with Park at the Kingsmill Championship in May, when Park shot 74 in the opening round and then withdrew.
“Inbee was starting to worry back then if she could play with the injury and if she was going to have to pull out of some events,” Ryu said. “The Olympics were a big deal to Inbee, but I could see she was really struggling with the decisions she was going to have to make.
“Inbee is very strong mentally, and she really handled things well.”
Nobody knew how Park would respond in Rio, but she impressed her Korean teammates.
“I am sure she was under more pressure than anyone else,” said In Gee Chun, who tied for 13th. “It’s incredible what she was able to accomplish under the circumstances.”
Choi said she expects Park’s victory will have the same kind of ripple effect in South Korea that Pak’s monumental victory did.
“I think it will have the same impact,” Choi said. “We were all called Se Ri’s kids, and I think Inbee will have that kind of influence on juniors who watched her win the gold medal. I think they are going to have that Olympic dream, too.”
Pak ignited the spark that led to South Korea’s emergence as a force in women’s golf, and now Park has fanned the flames in a way they have never been fanned before.
“There were people in Korea watching Inbee on TV who didn’t know anything about golf, but they were watching because it was the Olympics and she was going for gold,” Choi said. “We knew that from comments we were seeing during the telecast. We were having to explain what a par was and other golf terms.”
In that sense, Park didn’t just win a gold medal. She helped grow the game in a nation where it’s already flourishing.
“This certainly and finally cements Inbee’s status in Korean women’s golf as a legend alongside Se Ri,” Pyun said. “I also think Olympic women’s golf had a great showing as it relates to continuing development of the game in Asia.”