National Olympic Legends: Park inspires generations with her golfing gold in Rio

It may have been 2.08 a.m. in the Republic of Korea when Inbee Park holed out on the 18th at Rio 2016 to win Olympic gold, but no one was sleeping back home. Three national TV networks were carrying live coverage and, from schoolchildren to grandparents, a nation was transfixed.

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Golfer Inbee Park has long been a titan of the game. The Seoul native arrived in Rio de Janeiro for the sport’s return to the Olympic programme – after a 112-year absence – as a seven-time major winner and multiple world No.1. She had won three major titles in a row in 2013 and completed the career grand slam in 2015 – huge, far-reaching achievements in a country wild for women’s golf. But nothing, absolutely nothing, prepared her for what an Olympic gold medal would mean to her compatriots.

“I still remember it like [it was] yesterday, the day I flew into Korea after winning the gold medal in Rio,” Park said. “I have never seen so many media and so many people at the airport. It was just something else. I don’t get surprised at a lot of things, but that experience was just unreal.

“I realised I had won the gold for the whole country, not just for myself.”

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Korea’s national news agency, Yonhap, reported that Park’s closing round of 66 pulled in 23.9 per cent of the national TV audience share, making it comfortably the most-watched golf event in the nation’s history. It is quite an accolade in a country in which 6.36 million people, of a population of approximately 50 million, profess to playing golf, according to figures released by the Korea Golf Association in 2018. “It is not really surprising to know that it was the most-watched golf event ever because I know how much attention we were getting even a couple of months before the Olympics,” Park laughed. “I sort of knew it would be crazy back home since there is so much passion for the Olympics and Olympians, and especially for women’s golf. No other sport gets this much attention; we are so proud and really appreciate it.

It is such an honour to be in the position to inspire young kids to take up the game. It’s very special and I feel responsible. Seeing them pick up a club is a beautiful thing to watch Inbee Park Republic of Korea - Inbee Park Republic of Korea

“I remember when they announced golf would be back in the Olympics and how excited I was, and how excited the country was.” Park is famous, even in the notoriously phlegmatic world of professional golf, for being inscrutable and immoveable. But even she found the pressure leading up to Rio 2016 a little suffocating. In the four years prior to the Games, Republic of Korea golfers won nine of the 20 major championships on offer – with Park winning six herself.

“I thought I was used to the pressure and I thought I could handle it really well, but when I was injured a couple of months before the Olympics, the attention I was getting from so many people was quite hard to control,” Park admitted.

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Her injured left thumb – something which required her to take six months off after her Olympic triumph – had forced Park to withdraw from or miss the cut in all four of her final tournaments ahead of Rio 2016. It was a situation that led the former world No.1 to consider pulling out and giving her Olympic spot to one of the phalanx of uber-talented young Koreans snapping at her heels.

But somehow, this remarkable athlete shook it all off and shot 66, 66, 70 and 66 round Rio’s Olympic Golf Course to leave the best of the rest fighting for silver and bronze. The impact such fine scoring had on her countrymen and women remains the aspect which most amazes Park – even if it means she can now barely walk down the street in Seoul without being mobbed.

“It definitely drove so many people who didn’t watch or play golf before to get into the game,” said Park, whose effect on her beloved sport is widely considered to have at least equalled that of her hero Se Ri Pak, whose US Open win in 1998 precipitated the first boom in Korean golf. “We have such a variety of generations who love to watch and play golf since Rio 2016.

“It is such an honour to be in the position to inspire young kids [to take up] the game. It’s very special and I feel responsible. Seeing them pick up a club is a beautiful thing to watch.”

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The feeling of affection is more than reciprocated. Park’s transcendental standing in Korea was perfectly illustrated by her being chosen as one of the final torchbearers during the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 Opening Ceremony. Quite an honour for a golfer.

All she needs to do now is win another Olympic gold, starting with the looming Tokyo 2020 Games.

“It is probably harder to qualify for the Korean team than it is to win the gold,” laughed Park, who at world No.6 is the third of four Korean women currently ranked inside the top nine.

“Nobody is guaranteed a spot unless you are No.1 in the world I guess. Korean women’s golf is so strong, which motivates me to play harder and make the team, and make Korea proud again.”