Korea’s Inbee Park is feeling relaxed and confident ahead of her gold medal defence at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 women’s golf competition which begins at Kasumigaseki Country Club on Wednesday.
The 33-year-old Park struck gold for her country in Rio 2016 when golf made a welcome return following a 112-year lapse and she did so under intense pressure and scrutiny due to a lingering thumb injury and representing a golf-crazed nation.
“I mean, 2016 was far most pressure-filled I’ve ever felt in my life. I don’t know if I could do that again. If I felt it again this year, I don’t think I would be able to play. It is definitely much better and much more relaxing this year because of my condition. In 2016 I had to deal with the injury, I had to deal with a lot of pressure, but this year is a bit different,” said the 21-time LPGA Tour legend.
“It’s once in a four-year opportunity and I did want to play well and I didn’t want to withdraw. I was just trying really hard to fight the injury, but obviously a lot of people got worried. My family, my staff and probably the whole of Korea was probably worried that I am not in the best condition. I’ve been in a lot of situations where I felt a lot of pressure, but that kind of feel gave me a power to overcome a lot of the stuff and being able to win gold was amazing.”
Park will tee up in the opening two rounds alongside silver medallist Lydia Ko of New Zealand and China’s Shanshan Feng, who won bronze in Rio, at 8.41am on Wednesday in what will be one of the marquee groups.
World No. 1 and recent KPMG Women’s PGA Championship winner, Nelly Korda of the United States, world No. 2 Jin Young Ko of Korea and world No. 11 Nasa Hataoka of host country Japan will also attract plenty of attention when they begin their Olympic campaigns at 8.14am.
The bubbly Park, currently ranked third in the world, is strongly tipped to challenge for gold again as she has been in stellar form this season. She has already won once and enjoyed six other top-10s leading up to Tokyo 2020. “I have no injury this year and I have been playing the season well. So it’s a little bit different to 2016, but the same result would be nice, right?,” she said with a laugh.
“I’m very excited to be here and obviously representing the country twice in a row is the biggest honour for me. Here in Tokyo and five years after Rio, it is truly a dream come true for me. If I could put our flag in the highest point, that will even be a better experience. Hopefully the experience I had in Rio will help me get through this week and obviously with the hot weather and humid conditions, you have to be conditioning yourself really well.”
Jin Young Ko, an eight-time LPGA TOUR winner, remembers watching Park win the gold medal for Korea and started dreaming of Tokyo 2020. “I was watching TV and then she got a gold medal and I was thinking, I really want to play in the Olympics in 2020. This week is like my dream. I’m really proud to be on the same team with Inbee,” said Ko, who has one win and five top-10s this season.
China’s Feng, a 10-time winner on the LPGA Tour, said winning the bronze medal in Rio was a major career highlight and it would push her on to challenge for another podium finish in Tokyo, especially when she thinks this could be her last Olympics appearance.
“I would say a medal at the Olympics is very special because even though I’ve been a major winner, but like think about it, we have five majors every year, we have in four years we have 20 chances to win a major. So I would say it’s much harder to get a medal at the Olympics. So it was the most important or memorized moment in my career,” said the 31-year-old Chinese star.
Like Park, she intends to use her vast experience and success at the highest level of the women’s game to her benefit in what is expected to be a stern test at Kasumigaseki’s East course. She has three top-five finishes from eight starts this year, indicating her game is very much capable of getting her back onto the podium.
“I’m not as nervous as last time, for sure. I was really nervous like on that first tee and it was like I didn’t remember anything. I realized I was already walking down the fairway on the first hole, so I didn’t remember anything about the tee shot,” said Feng.
“I wouldn’t say I’m in my best shape in my career, but I was very happy to come back this year as starting at a major, getting a top-3 finish and a couple more top-5 finishes after that. So I’m very confident about my game, I just really want to enjoy and relax the whole day and the whole week. I’m pretty sure this is my last Olympic Games. I don’t think I will play in another Olympics, So I better enjoy it, yeah.”