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Inbee determined to defend her Olympic gold, but she still has to make the team

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Inbee Park is turning up the intensity in a bid to get back to the Olympics, to give herself a chance to win another gold medal.

The fact that she is teeing it up at this week’s Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions shows just how motivated she is to make it to Tokyo in August.

Park is playing the LPGA season opener for the first time since 2016, which, not coincidentally, was the last Olympic year, when even her own countrymen were writing off her chances in an injury-riddled season. In fact, a legion of South Korean golf fans that year thought she should surrender her spot in the Olympics to a healthier player with a better chance of winning.

Though Park was winless last year, it would be a mistake to write her off again this time around. She was also winless in 2016, before she took the gold in Rio de Janeiro.

But Park knows there’s a lot of work to do just to make the Korean team.

“I’ve always started the season a little bit late, probably the end of February or early March” Park said Tuesday at Four Seasons Golf & Sports Club. “But I’m starting early because it’s an important year.” 

When the rankings finally shake out in June, there might not be a tougher Olympic team to make in golf than the Republic of Korea.

“The U.S. men’s team is pretty tough as well, but, in women’s golf, I think it has to be, definitely, the toughest team to make,” Park said.

Head vs. Heart picks: Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions

Head vs. Heart picks: Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions

The top 60 players in the Olympic Golf Rankings, which is based on the Rolex Women’s World Rankings, will qualify to go to Tokyo. The field will be limited to two players per country, though as many as four from a country can qualify if they are all within the top 15 in the Olympic rankings.

That means South Korea is a virtual lock to once again send four players, but Park wouldn’t be among them if the Olympics were staged this week. In the current Olympic rankings, Jin Young Ko (No. 1), Sung Hyun Park (No. 2), Sei Young Kim (No. 5) and Jeong Lee6 (No. 7) would make the team. Hyo Joo Kim (No. 13) and Park (No. 15) would be alternates.

There are 11 South Koreans among the top 25 in this week’s world rankings.

Last year, Park didn’t make her first start until the HSBC Women’s World Championship in late February. She’ll make four starts before that this year. She’s also committed to next week’s Gainbridge LPGA at Boca Rio, the ISPS Handa Vic Open and the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open.

Park’s LPGA Hall of Fame status, her 19 LPGA titles and seven major championship don’t give her a foot in the qualifying door. With the Olympic Golf Rankings qualifying ending on June 29, she is looking to pile up as many world ranking points as she can.

“I wanted to give myself a lot of opportunity,” Park said.

Park is only 31, but she doesn’t feel so young watching Ko, Park, Lee6 and young Koreans taking control of the women’s game

“I feel like I'm still pretty young, but once I'm on the LPGA tour, I feel like I'm not young anymore,” Park said. “This tour is definitely getting younger. ... I definitely feel like there is a lot of room to catch up. These girls are moving really fast. They're hitting it much, much farther. They're young. They're fit. Yeah, that definitely gives me motivation.”