Inbee Park of the Republic of Korea captured Asia’s first Olympic golf gold medal when she completed a remarkable recovery from injury to underline her status as one of the modern greats of the women’s game.
The 28-year-old from Seoul recorded her third sublime 66 at Reserva de Marapendi Golf Course in Rio de Janeiro to win the first women’s competition since 1900 by five shots from New Zealand’s Lydia Ko and by six from Shanshan Feng of China. Park finished on a 16-under-par total of 268 with scores of 66-66-70-66.
Park turned the final day in front of a sell-out crowd into a stunning exhibition of brilliantly controlled golf, extending her lead from two strokes overnight into a commanding five-shot victory over world No.1 Ko, who rolled in a seven-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole for a 69 and 273 total to claim the silver medal. Feng matched Ko’s closing score to take the bronze on 274.
Just for good measure, Russia’s Maria Verchenova smashed the course record by firing a nine-under-par 62, assisted by a hole-in-one at the fourth, to climb 25 places into a tie for 18th at the conclusion of a highly successful return to the Olympic Games for women’s golf.
As a result of today’s outcome, it means that all six medals awarded in the two golf competitions have been distributed among six different nations – Korea, New Zealand and China in the women’s competition and Great Britain (Justin Rose), Sweden (Henrik Stenson) and the United States (Matt Kuchar) in last week’s men’s contest.
The new Olympic champion hugged her equally emotional three Korean team-mates after holing out for a regulation par five at the 18th hole and said: “This is definitely one of the special moments in my golfing career and in my whole life. It feels great. Obviously representing your country and winning the gold is so special. It’s just really all I’ve wanted.”
Park’s triumph was all the more extraordinary for the fact that she has only played once competitively since June, the result of an on-going problem with her left thumb which curtailed her 2016 appearances to just 10 starts on the LPGA Tour.
However, with seven majors in her locker, there was no disputing her supreme talent, and Park delivered a masterclass in precision golf, accruing seven birdies – offset by two back-nine bogeys – in holding the opposition at arm’s length all day.
She added: “This is something I’ve really been dreaming of coming into the week. There were so many Korean people out here supporting me and it almost felt like we were in Korea. Seeing how much support I had this week, I’m just happy that I finished well. This is definitely a big relief.”
Kiwi Ko, still only a teenager and surely set to compete in Tokyo in four years’ time, fought hard to close the gap on the Korean, but ultimately Park’s advantage was seldom under threat.
She commented: “I didn’t have a great start, but I just tried to hang in there. I can’t believe I’m holding a medal on the podium – it’s what I’ve been dreaming about since 2009. To actually be there beside Inbee and Shanshan, is a dream come true. This has been just an amazing week.”
Ko knew that she had to get up and down from greenside to avoid a play-off for silver and bronze with Feng, and did so brilliantly. She laughed: “My celebration was as if I won the gold! It’s pretty cool.”
Canada’s Brooke Henderson was the leading medal contender for her nation but could not gain ground on the leaders. Her gold medal pursuit was derailed by a 75 in the third round but she finished admirably with a 67 to ultimately share 7th place at -8 (70-64-75-67).
Characterizing her play for the week as “not her best”, Henderson was nonetheless positive about her Olympic foray “I did a lot of good things out there which I think is really important that I take away, moving forward.”
She added, “Unfortunately today I maybe did my play my best, or over the last week, but I had a great experience and I’m looking forward to four years from now.”
Henderson’s teammate, Alena Sharp, finished in 30th place. She posted scores of 72-69-75-69 for the week in Rio.