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Korean team gives fans what they came to see

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INCHEON, South Korea – The Korean fans didn’t live up to the hype in Thursday’s opening round.

The Korean players did, though.

With the bleachers around the first tee nearly empty when England and Australia were introduced as the opening match, the UL International Crown got off to a decidedly underwhelming start.

There wasn’t a hint of electricity in the air in a surprisingly low voltage opening, with none of the new energy promised for this event’s first staging overseas. But the late-arriving Korean fans picked things up when their team teed off, 90 minutes after the first ball was struck.

With legend Se Ri Pak raising the Republic of Korea flag as the country’s national anthem played, the sense of pride in what Korean women have come to mean to golf was palpable.

Park, a two-time major champion, said she was nervous watching her country’s flag go up.

“I thought my heart was going to burst,” Park said.

Korean fans didn’t completely fill the bleachers at the first tee, but they crammed together on the mound along the first fairway, chanting and waving small flags and signs supporting their players.

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Though there weren’t the 30,000 expected Thursday – probably not even half that – there were healthy galleries hiking every step with the Koreans, especially with Sung Hyun Park, whose “Namdalla” fan club was decked out in black and gold, their club colors.

The Korean team delivered exactly what the fans wanted to see.

They seized control, sweeping both their fourball matches to become the only team to go 2-0 in the opening round.

Park was spectacular at the 14th, driving the short par 4 there and then holing an 18-foot eagle putt to ignite a roar in front of the two-story corporate hospitality suites building there. She gave her and I.K. Kim a 2-up lead on Chinese Taipei’s Candie Kung and Phoebe Yao, a gritty duo that didn’t make it easy on the Koreans.

Kim had to sink a clutch 10-foot birdie at the last to secure a 1-up victory.

In the match right behind, Korea’s So Yeon Ryu and In Gee Chun brought home a 2-up victory against Chinese Taipei’s Teresa Lu and Wei-Ling Su.

All square through 10 holes, Chun put the Koreans up holing a 10-foot putt at the 11th. Ryu closed out the victory with a birdie at the last.

The Koreans have something to prove to their fans here.

They are the dominant force in women’s golf. They are home to the Rolex world No. 1, Park, and they boast the only team here this week with major champions filling all four rosters spots.

“The pressure is all on them this week,” American Cristie Kerr said.

So far, so good for Team Korea.

“You have pressure, it's just a different kind,” Ryu said when asked how playing for her country compared to playing in a major. “I think that before we actually started today, having to play in front of the home crowd, representing our country was a little more daunting. “Now that we finished, I think having the fans really helped us.”

Korea leads Pool A with four points after the opening round.

Thailand leads Pool B with three points after gaining a victory and a tie in their matches with Japan.

The United States split its matches with Sweden in Pool B.

The top two teams from each pool will advance to Sunday singles after three rounds of fourballs. A fifth wild-card team will also advance after a playoff between the third-place finishers from each pool.

Friday’s action will ramp up with a schedule change because of the approach of Typhoon Kong-Rey, which is expected to graze the area beginning late Friday, bringing rain and wind gusts up to 40 mph.

Friday’s play will begin at 7:05 a.m. local time (Thursday at 6:05 p.m. ET), with the third and final fourball round beginning shortly after the second round concludes. The plan is to get in as much of the third round as possible.

The Koreans will be looking to keep their hot hands going.