RIO DE JANEIRO — Inbee Park has always had a cult following. The other day, one of her biggest fans was pantomiming her slow, syrupy backswing. “Inbee, that’s my girl,” said Steph Curry, a scratch golfer who is also the point guard for the Golden State Warriors. “Whenever she’s in contention I try to watch. That’s the tempo I want. And if I had that stroke…” Yes, even one of the greatest athletes in the world lusts after Park’s proficiency with the putter.
With her glittering performance at the Rio Games, hopefully Park will receive the larger acclaim she so richly deserves. She turned the final round of this grand Olympic experiment into a coronation, winning by five strokes to become the second Olympic champion in women’s golf, following Margaret Abbott in 1900 (who shot 47 for nine holes and received not a gold medal but a ceremonial bowl).
Park came into the final round leading by two strokes. Early on Saturday morning — the tee times were pushed up due to fears of thunderstorms — every other contender looked overwhelmed by the magnitude of the opportunity, but Park rang up three consecutive birdies starting at the 3rd hole to open up a five-stroke lead. When she stuffed her tee shot on the par-3 8th hole, her advantage ballooned to six strokes. And yet Park’s poker face never changed in the slightest. This modulation of her emotions is one of the things that makes her such a ruthless closer; 17 times in her career Park has had a 54-hole lead and this was her 11th victory.
“There’s a lot for me to learn about her calmness when she puts herself in these positions,” said playing partner Lydia Ko, who birdied the 72nd hole to take the silver medal for New Zealand. “That’s the difference why she’s able to win these huge events. She doesn’t make it more complicated than it needs to be.”
Already the most dominant player of her generation and a member of the Hall of Fame, Park is entering into the discussion of all-time greatest players. In the modern era, her total of seven major championship victories is bettered only by Annika Sorenstam’s 10, and no event in women’s golf has commanded the spotlight like these Games. The parking lot at the Olympic golf course was packed with black sedans flying diplomatic flags, to say nothing of grim-faced commandos who were watching over the various dignitaries. But it is Park who was the real royalty, yet again leaving her colleagues grasping for superlatives. “I don’t know if golf fans really understand how amazing she is,” said Lexi Thompson, who finished 19th. “Can a Hall of Famer be underrated? I don’t know, she might be the first.”
For Park the triumph redeemed a trying year that has been compromised by an injured left thumb. She hadn’t completed a four-round tournament since April, and in the run-up to Rio her health was the subject of obsessive speculation in the Korean media. There were rumblings that Park should relinquish her spot in the Olympics to make room for another Korean who was in better form. Park was hurt by the chatter and upset with the implied disrespect, and she prepared with a renewed purpose, hiring a new swing coach and taking a month away from competition ahead of the Games.
“I practiced hard and gave it all I’ve got,” she said. And while her ballstriking showed signs of rust — on Saturday her only big mistake was a snap-hook into the hazard left of the 10th fairway that led to a bogey — Park’s magic wand saved the day, as usual. Said Ko: “I think the biggest difference between us is that she’s a better putter than me. Even her bad days I feel like are good. And when she gets hot with that flat stick, she’s outta here!”
As Park ran away with the gold medal the real action on Saturday was for silver and bronze, though Russia’s Maria Verchenova, the former ballerina and part-time model, came through with a stylish nine-under 62 to establish a course record. Ko took a penalty drop on the 2nd hole and throughout the front nine missed a series of midrange putts the likes of which she usually feasts on. After a messy bogey on the 11th hole she had tumbled off the podium. Said Ko, “At one stage I was in fifth [place], and I said, O.K., I’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Birdies on 14 and 16 got her back into a tie for second at 10 under par with China’s Shanshan Feng, who took three putts to get down from the fringe of the par-5 18th hole, resulting in a disappointing par. (Stacy Lewis could have factored in the outcome, but she left a birdie putt at 18 an inch short to finish at nine under.) Behind Feng, Ko curled in an eight-footer for birdie to snatch the silver medal. “My celebration was as if I won the gold,” Ko said moments after the round ended. “I can’t believe I’m going to hold a medal on the podium; it’s what I’ve been dreaming about since 2009.”
That was the year golf officially reentered the Olympics. All along there has been the hope that a player from a populous nation with little golf tradition would take a medal and grow the game, and in that context Feng’s bronze may be the most important of these Games. It’s also an opportunity for the wider world to get to know a player whom her colleagues often describe as the funniest on the LPGA tour.
“I won’t say funniest, just silliest,” Feng says. “I do tell jokes all the time.”
Give us an example, Shanshan.
“You are very bad looking.”
That’s not a joke; it’s a putdown.
“O.K., you want a joke? I am the best-looking girl on the planet.”
That’s sarcasm, but we appreciate the effort.
Park does not indulge in any such levity, to the point that it can be tough to tell how much she cares. But when the final putt dropped, it appeared her knees might buckle, and she looked toward the heavens in a celebration that was a mixture of joy and relief. Where does this win rank among her many?
“Definitely at the top,” Park said. “This feels very, very special. I’m so honored to represent my country. To be able to hear my national anthem was an unforgettable moment.”
Behind the 18th green Park’s three fellow Korean competitors and their captain, Se Ri Pak, were hugging and blinking back tears. It was Pak’s breakthrough at the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open that inspired a generation of Korean parents to introduce their daughters to golf, including Park’s. Watching her protégé win gold was, Pak said, “the most amazing moment I’ve ever had. I can’t really believe this is happening. I’m living through her now. It’s because of her that I’m getting to be here. I’m so proud and happy for Inbee. It’s been a rough year for her but you can not ever doubt a champion.”
After a performance for the ages, Park is no longer a mere champion. She is an Olympic gold medalist, a title that has new significance in a sport she has long defined.