South Korea’s ‘silent assassin’, Park In-bee, will defend her gold medal at the Olympics – but only qualified for Tokyo because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Five years ago she defied injury to win at Rio 2016, where golf returned to the Games after a 112-year absence.
But she suffered further injuries in subsequent years and slid down the rankings after a winless 2019 on the LPGA Tour.
With a maximum of four South Koreans qualifying, had the Olympics taken place as scheduled a year ago, Park would have missed out as she was fifth on the country’s list despite being world No 11.
But in the 12 months since, she has played her way into contention, winning the Kia Classic in March and recording six top-10 LPGA Tour finishes.
When the final Olympics qualification rankings were announced this week, she was on the plane to Japan as world No 3.
The journey has not been easy. “It was very hard to in an opportunity to represent South Korea,” said the 32-year-old.
“I’m so happy that I’ve achieved it. I’d really like to win my second gold and make our country proud.”
Observers say Park’s mental strength is what marks her out as a real contender for back-to-back golds.
“She set her mind to qualify and she did,” said Nora Ventureira, an Argentina-based golf analyst.
“Her willpower, her commitment to accomplish new challenges” makes her “different from other Korean golfers or any other international players for that matter,” Ventureira told AFP.
Singapore-based TV golf commentator Kate Burton added: “She plays her own game, has a unique swing that works for her and is arguably the best putter in the women’s game.
“If I had to choose a player to hole a five-foot putt under pressure, I would choose In-bee as her ability to read greens is out of this world.”
Born in 1988 in Seongnam, south of Seoul, Park started playing when she was 10, inspired by South Korean great Pak Se-ri’s 1998 US PGA Championship victory.
Veteran Pak’s trailblazing career sparked an explosion of female Korean golfing talent and Park is seen as one of the most successful ‘Pak Se-ri kids’.
She moved to the US for training at age 12 in 2001, settling first in Florida and later Las Vegas.
Now a member of the LPGA Hall of Fame and a seven-time Major champion, Park is only four behind Pak’s South Korean record 25 LPGA titles.
Her ability to stay impassive, cool and focused under pressure has had her dubbed the ‘silent assassin’.
“Staying calm has allowed me to be where I am today – in fact it’s what I consider to be most important,” Park told AFP.
“I’ve found my peace when I just embraced the fact that in golf, things don’t always go well, and that’s how it just is.
“The thought has helped me overcome many challenges, even the moments that felt were impossible to tackle.”
Rio the retriever
Park lives with her husband, coach and occasional caddie Nam Gi-hyeob and a lively golden retriever called Rio he gave her as a surprise gift when she returned from Brazil, medal in hand.
She runs her own YouTube channel – ‘Inbee Park Inbeelievable’ – where she appears training, cooking and playing with Nam and Rio at their home, decorated with contemporary art.
The couple have no children yet, but in one video Park says: “I spend more than 90% of my leisure time with my son Rio, I love him so much.”
Park is among the most celebrated of South Korea’s Olympic champions and, along with figure skater Kim Yuna, is often portrayed as a national treasure.
Park said her Rio win gave her a sense of accomplishment that was “incomparable to anything else”.
“Golf is an individual sport, but Olympic Games are special because everyone competes with a strong sense of belonging.”
A second gold would give her a unique status in South Korea, said Choi Dong-ho, director of the Center for Sports Culture research group.
The first Korean Olympic gold medallist was a marathon runner, forced to compete for colonial rulers Japan in 1936, who was visibly miserable throughout the award ceremony.
Nowadays, Olympic champions have a special status in South Korea after the Games served as a distraction from decades of post-war reconstruction and authoritarian rule.
And the country regularly features in the top-10 medal tables at both the Summer and Winter Olympics.
“If Park becomes a two-time Olympic champion, she’ll long be remembered as an exceptional, irreplaceable hero,” said Choi.
“Olympic champions have a special spot in South Koreans’ hearts.”
© Agence France-Presse