RIO DE JANEIRO – Going out on top is no easy thing, particularly for an athlete whose life since she was 10 years old has been defined by an uncanny ability to filter out distractions and doubt.
But if Inbee Park sounded as if she had little interest in the latter on Wednesday at the Olympic Golf Course, there was no escaping the former.
Park arrived in Rio following two months on the disabled list nursing an ailing left thumb and has grown weary of answering questions about the injury.
“I don’t want to speak about my thumb,” she said. “The injury is not going to be a problem this week.”
If her first-round 66 was any indication the South Korean’s insistence that all was well with her thumb was more than just a mind game to keep her focused on the task at hand.
Park hit 13 of 14 fairways and 15 of 18 greens in regulation on Day 1 of the women’s competition to move to within one stroke of the first-round lead, and her round could have been even better.
The 28-year-old missed six putts for birdie inside 10 feet and failed to birdie any of the Olympic course’s closing three holes, which are widely considered the key to scoring on the Gil Hanse-designed layout.
“The one thing that I'm really happy about is that I had that many opportunities out there today,” said Park, who trails front-runner Ariya Jutanugarn of Thailand by one shot. “I always like to deal with missed opportunities more than not even having an opportunity.”
Simply put, Park did what Park does best – avoid trouble and unforced errors. Not bad for a player who hasn’t played an LPGA event since June’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship and missed the cut two week’s ago at a relatively weak-field Korean LPGA tournament.
“That girl's good,” said America’s Gerina Piller, who was paired with Park on Day 1. “She makes everything she looks at. I'm going to have to go ask her for a putting lesson after that. She's kind of plain vanilla, she gets it done.”
That’s the story of Park’s career – unabashed brilliance in an unassuming cover. What she may lack in Q rating has always been secondary to an incomparable competitive moxie, winning 17 times on the LPGA, seven major championships and this year becoming the youngest LPGA player to ever qualify for the Hall of Fame.
For Park, substance has always trumped style.
Which is why this week’s Olympics are such a curious case for Park, who has hinted in recent months that she could be much closer to the end of her career than one might think.
Asked this week if she has a timeframe for when she may step down from competitive golf, Park continued to be vague.
“I'd like to have a family soon and that's probably my priority maybe the next couple years,” she said. “I really don't know what's going to happen. If I have a baby or after I have a family, whether I'm going to come back or not come back. I'm just in between how to plan the rest of my career.”
There’s no need for a translation: Retirement is coming for Park; the only question is when the world’s fifth-ranked player will make her break for the golden years.
Some this week have suggested the Olympics could be Park’s swan song – although she said on Tuesday that she hopes to be able to play next month’s Evian Championship in France if her ailing left thumb permits.
Although she has struggled this year largely because of injury, in 2015 Park won five times, including two majors. That doesn’t exactly sound like a player on the verge of an early exit, but in the context of her career it’s conceivable that she’s pegged the Olympics as the perfect departure point.
For a player who has accomplished nearly everything in professional golf – in fact, the only missing piece to the resume would be winning the Evian, which she won before it was decreed a major – a medal, particularly of the gold variety, would be the perfect bookend for the trophy case.
Although Park, like the vast majority of golfers both male and female who traveled to Rio for golf’s return to the Olympics, danced around comparisons between winning a major vs. a medal, back home in South Korea a trip to the podium on Saturday would eclipse everything she has accomplished.
“The Olympic Games will be bigger [than a major] in Korea probably,” Park said. “A lot of golf fans are interested in golf and I think the Olympics is all the people who enjoy sports, and even people who don’t enjoy sports, I think they get to watch and cheer. So I think it is quite big.”
On Wednesday the competitor in Park didn’t feel inclined to address either her injury or her future plans in the game, but she left little doubt where a victory this week would rank on her Hall of Fame resume.
“This could be the highlight of my career,” she said.
Whether it would also be a magical swan song remains to be seen.