Park laps field for gold medal at Rio Olympics


RIO DE JANEIRO – This may not be an apple-to-apples fit, but in Olympic terms Inbee Park’s romp on Saturday at Olympic Golf Course was Katie Ledecky-like.

Ledecky – American’s sweetheart swimming champion who cleaned up in Rio with five medals, including four gold – may have set the standard for dominance in these Games, but Park’s five-stroke romp over the very best the women’s game has to offer was akin to Ledecky’s 11-second victory in the 800-meter freestyle.

Much like Ledecky last week, Park’s victory was never in doubt. Not after beginning her day with three consecutive birdies starting at the third hole. Not after making the turn a half dozen clear in her race to a gold medal. And certainly not when she birdied two of her last three to leave all drama to those vying for the silver and bronze.

The cold figures added up to a closing 66 for a 16-under 268 total.

On most weeks, Park would do well to stay with those detached numbers. The South Korean is fondly described as methodical, some have even described the 28-year-old as detached and virtually void of emotion on the golf course.

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There were no fist pumps, no triumphant pounding on her shirt after victory like that shown by Justin Rose in last week’s opening Olympic act.

That’s not Park’s style.

She hits fairways. She hits greens in regulation. She converts more putts than Jordan Spieth on a good day. And then she marches to the next tee with the look of a teenager taking an exam.

“I don't think people understand at all,” said Stacy Lewis, who came within a fraction of an inch of a chance to playoff for the bronze medal. “If you watch her, or even Lydia [Ko], watch both of them play golf, you're not going to be wowed. You're not going to be amazed. But if you watch it over a period of time, you'll be amazed.”

Be amazed, be entertained, because Park’s performance for four days in Rio goes well beyond those cold numbers, whether she’s comfortable diving into the nuances or not.

This is, after all, the same player who has just two top-10 finishes this season and hadn’t played an event on the world stage in more than two months because of a thumb injury.

A player who didn’t make the decision to even participate in golf’s grand return to the Games (it’s been 116 years since a woman golfer stepped to an Olympic podium) until about a month ago and even that decision was met with mixed reviews back home in South Korea.

There were those who figured Park was unfit for duty in Rio and should have made room for another South Korean in the competition. It was a school of thought that was hard for Park to ignore.

“Oh my god, that’s probably the biggest pressure she’s ever had,” said Se Ri Pak, the LPGA legend who served as South Korea’s team leader for the Games. “She got injured and had a really rough year, and then she decided almost not to come. The fans were half and half, good and bad, and the pressure, tons and tons.”

She may come across as aloof on the golf course, but the second-guessing cut deep.

Park took two months off to heal mind and body, played a tune-up event on the Korean LPGA two weeks ago, where she missed the cut, to identify which parts of her game needed work – which was pretty much everything.

She brought in a second swing coach to modify her action in order to accommodate her ailing left thumb and arrived in Brazil with a singular purpose.

Whether Olympic golf will ever rival, or even surpass, a major championship in terms of importance is the kind of esoteric debate that normally only leads to distractions, but for Park there is no doubt. She knew that back in South Korea a gold medal would mean so much more than any of her seven major championship victories.

“A lot of people were saying that maybe it is better to have another player in the field, a fellow South Korean player, which is very understandable,” Park said. “But I really wanted to do well this week to show a lot of people that I can still play.”

For those at home checking the transcript, that’s as close as Park ever got to an I-told-you-so moment. Instead, she let that machine-like game make her statements.

Whatever doubt may have clouded Park’s decision to play in Rio was quickly put to rest when she opened her week with back-to-back rounds of 66. Even Friday’s 70 in wind-whipped conditions held a measure of accountability considering how difficult the golf course played.

By the time she completed her round on Saturday there was no doubt she deserved her spot in the South Korean team house, nor – as is normally the case – any emotion.

The same couldn’t be said for the other members of the Olympic field.

After entering the day in solo third place, Gerina Piller appeared to be America’s best hope for a medal. But she began her round with back-to-back bogeys, made the turn in a three-way tie for the bronze and finished her week with a 2-over 38 on the inward loop to tie for 11th place.

After racing through the media “mix zone,” a visibly shaken Piller relented to be interviewed.

“I didn't even think I had a chance to be here, so to come and to be in contention is all I can really ask for,” Piller said. “I’m just going to learn from it and move on.”

Lewis was America’s final chance to earn a spot on the podium when she began the final hole tied with Ko and Japan’s Harukyo Nomura for third place, but her birdie putt came up short and she finished a stroke behind bronze medal winner Shanshan Feng of China and in a tie for fourth place.

Ko birdied two of her last three holes, including an 8 footer at the last, to claim the silver medal and become New Zealand’s youngest medalist ever.

But unlike last week when Rose was pushed to the 72nd hole by Henrik Stenson and the intensity of the competition was the headline, Park’s performance dominated the broader podium.

“She’s really good. She’s not pretty good, she’s really good,” Ko corrected a media type during the post-round interviews.

Injury or not, slump or otherwise, Park proved that point in Rio in a performance that could only be described as Ledecky-like.