Inbee Park is doing more than quietly healing in her time away from the game.
There is something rejuvenating about carrying around an Olympic gold medal for three months, because that’s exactly what Park did upon returning to South Korea last summer, where she received a hero’s welcome upon returning from Rio de Janeiro.
“The whole three months I was back home in Korea, and everywhere I went, everyone wanted to see it,” Park told GolfChannel.com. “So, I’ve been carrying my gold medal wherever I go.”
When Park finally left her South Korean home late last year, she handed the prize to her father, who keeps it safe in a trophy room at his Korean company. She is in Las Vegas now, preparing to make her return to the LPGA, hopefully at the Honda LPGA Thailand in five weeks.
Still, Park is never far from her Olympic memory. She recently adopted a puppy she named “Rio.” He’s a Golden Retriever.
“Playing with Rio is a big schedule for me now,” Park said.
Park, 28, hasn’t hit a shot in competition since the Olympics. She spent almost a month after winning gold with her injured left thumb in a cast. She didn’t touch a club for nearly four months, until December, but she says that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Olympic memories are more than motivating for Park. They are restorative. While there was speculation in the player and media ranks last year that Park might consider retiring early, she says all her time away from the game after winning the medal has freshened her spirit.
“It definitely refreshed me, and my perspective on the game has slightly changed,” Park said. “You don't really appreciate what you have already. But when I was away, I was able to appreciate what I had, and have more passion for the game. So it was very useful time. Not just getting healthy, but changing the mindset was a good achievement.”
For all Park has achieved, winning seven major championships, including three in a row, and reigning at world No. 1 for 92 weeks, she said winning Olympic gold resonates the strongest.
“Out of all the tournaments I've won so far, the Olympic is definitely the one that lasts longest,” Park said. “Not just by me, but so many people still remember it like yesterday. I think that is really the difference. The thing I’m really most happy about is that so many people who weren't interested in golf or women's golf recognize me and the game of golf. More variety of fan base for sport is what I am really happy about. I really feel that is the power of the Olympics.”
Park struggled through so much pain last year, with an injury to the ligament of her left thumb shortening her season, but it only made the year more remarkable. First, she battled through the pain to qualify for the LPGA Hall of Fame in June, and then after a long layoff battled through more pain to win in Rio in August, when nobody expected her to win.
“Just astounding,” Hall of Famer and Golf Channel analyst Judy Rankin said Thursday. “I don’t know how she accomplished what she accomplished. You don’t think you can be surprised by somebody as good as she’s been, but that was really a surprise. I so commend her for going through a lot of external pressure and making that happen.”
Karen Stupples, the 2004 Women’s British Open champ and a Golf Channel analyst, was equally impressed.
“How she won the Olympics, I just don’t know how that happened,” Stupples said. “I think that it was meant to be.”
Park’s triumph, though, makes LPGA observers wonder what she has left to prove and how that will affect her ambition.
“I don’t know what this season holds, I think there are so many variables,” Stupples said. “How do you set goals when you’ve achieved everything that you can possibly achieve? You’re already in the Hall of Fame, you’ve won the gold medal, you’ve got the majors and in your mind the Grand Slam. Where does she go? I think that’s the biggest problem players that do what Inbee has done have moving forward.”
Park is focused on making the best return she can this season. She’s eager to compete again, and she isn’t sure what her long-term plans are.
“I really don’t know and don’t want to guarantee anything since my mind changes every day,” she said.
But . . .
“The 2020 Tokyo Olympics gold medal can be a good goal for the future,” she said.
There was so much focus on Rolex world No. 1 Lydia Ko and No. 2 Ariya Jutanugarn going to the Olympics, but Park reminded us all just how dominant she can be.
Park is eager to see what she can do this year. She says she’s feeling better. She began hitting balls again in December and is now playing nine to 18 holes a day.
“I feel really good,” Park said. “I feel like I took really good rest, and rehab has been very successful. Most of the times, I play with no pain which is really good.”
As formidable as Park is when she’s healthy, her return promises to get the attention of world No. 1 Ko and No. 2 Jutanugarn. When Park’s putter is hot, she can demoralize a field in ways nobody else can in the women’s game today.
In her time away, Park has slid outside the top 10 in the world rankings, to No. 11. Does she still want to be No. 1?
“Who wouldn’t want to be?” Park said. “I wouldn't say it's my main goal, but it is definitely one of the goals I will go for. I am just happy that I am healthy enough to be back on the course and swinging. We will go one step at a time.”
Park is traditionally a slow starter, and she will have more of an off season to overcome this year, but she’s excited about returning.
“I'd like to come back in a really nice form,” she said. “Obviously, that's what I am aiming for. I may be bit rusty, but once the season starts and I go through a couple of tournaments, that shouldn't be a big problem. I think the key is to stay healthy and play in a good condition throughout the season.”
That could completely change this year’s narrative.