RIO DE JANEIRO—They have different accents, different swings and are separated in age by nearly a decade, but Inbee Park and Lydia Ko are, in many ways, the same player.
“She’s kind of plain vanilla, she just gets it done,” Gerina Piller says of Park.
“She hits in the fairway, hits on the green, makes the putt,” Christina Kim says of Ko. “What’s so hard about that?”
Park, 28, was the first of the Se Ri Pak clones to reshape the LPGA, and in turn her success had a profound effect on Ko. “Of course Lydia has looked up to Inbee,” says Ko’s sister Sura. “She showed this generation of girls what is possible.”
Now, after a wild and windy third round at the Olympic golf competition, the most dominant player of the last decade and her heir apparent will battle on the biggest stage the women’s game has ever known. With gusts of up to 30 miles per hour, more than one competitor described the conditions as “borderline,” but Park posted a 70 to reach 11 under par, two shots ahead of Ko and Piller, the passionate 31-year-old American who is improbably trying to win gold for the first victory of her career.
Piller got choked up talking about the possibility of a medal even before she had hit her first shot and after her third-round 68, she was not shying away from magnitude of the moment. “I allow myself to think about it,” says Piller, who is oh-fer-132 on the LPGA tour. “Because I’m a firm believer that when you see yourself doing something, and you keep running that through your mind, then you’re more likely to do that. So I really see myself up in contention, up at the top of the leaderboard, standing on that podium and just really giving myself belief and self talk that I do belong here.” Still, she is under no illusions as to what she’s up against playing in the final pairing alongside Park and Ko.
“They just don’t make any mistakes. and that’s why they are tough to beat,” she says.
Ko set the tone for an action-packed third round. She has said often in the run-up to the Games that a gold medal is her top priority for 2016, and while the other golfers have been making the scene in Rio and enjoying the camaraderie in the Athletes Village, Ko has been “on lockdown” at a hotel, in the words of her caddie Jason Hamilton. Over the last week she has yet to watch a single Olympic event live, and this single-minded focus may have been hurting Ko as she looked a tad tight during opening rounds of 69-70, which left her languishing in 22nd place. “I think she was putting too much pressure on herself,” says Sura. “Today she was back to normal.”
Teeing off an hour and a half ahead of the leaders, before it began blowing a gale, Ko birdied three of the first six holes to free herself up. On the par-3 8th hole she hit a seven-iron that never left the flag and fell into the cup. It was, incredibly, the first hole-in-one of her life. “I almost didn’t know how to react,” Ko said. “I would have loved to have done a dance or jumped up and down, but in that situation I think I was almost trying to cry, and then I realized, ‘Hey, I’ve got 11 more holes, [snap] out of it.'”
She nearly topped herself on the par-4 9th. Says Hamilton, “Her approach shot was dead on-line and landed a yard short of the hole and then finished directly behind it, a yard past. Lexi Thompson’s dad says to me, ‘I don’t know how that didn’t go in.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, we just can’t catch a break.’ Lexi heard that and she was like, ‘Are you freaking kidding me?'”
Add it up and Ko played the front nine in 29 strokes to storm back into the tournament. On the tougher back nine, facing some of the strongest winds of this Olympic fortnight, she ground out nine straight pars to post a 65.
Afterward, her playing partner Leona Maguire, a wide-eyed Irish amateur, struggled to identify any part of Ko’s physical game that wowed her; rather, she was dazzled by the subtleties. “She thinks her way around a course probably the best of anyone,” Maguire said. “It was a clockwork round of golf. She put it exactly where she was trying to hit it every single time and didn’t really giver herself any stress, which is what you need to do out there.”
Of course, the same things can usually be said of Park’s precise game, but she made five bogeys on Friday and needed some clutch par-saves to mitigate further damage. Afterward she was far from discouraged. “My putting was really, really good today, six birdies out in that condition is phenomenal,” she said. “I missed a lot more fairways and greens than I did the last couple days. Today I think it’s hard to tell whether it’s me or it’s just the wind.”
The winner of seven major championships, including a career Grand Slam, Park has rebutted media speculation this week that she is contemplating retirement. Still, a gold medal is the only thing left for her to accomplish. She knows it won’t come easily, especially now that Ko has accessed her A-game.
“She played really good in tough conditions so she will have the most confidence of anyone,” Park said. “I’ve played with her many times, we’re really good friends, but it will be very competitive. I’m prepared for anything from her.”
Park paused here, gave a little smile and added, “But she should be prepared for anything from me. So let’s see what happens.”