Golf: Olympic race tight for South Koreans who dominate Tour

World No. 2 Park In Bee, pictured at the HSBC Women's Champions, leads the charge to make South Korea's women's golf squad for the Rio Olympics. She and her compatriots occupied seven of the top 15 spots in the world rankings as of yesterday.
World No. 2 Park In Bee, pictured at the HSBC Women's Champions, leads the charge to make South Korea's women's golf squad for the Rio Olympics. She and her compatriots occupied seven of the top 15 spots in the world rankings as of yesterday.ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

Forget the US men's 4x100m sprint relay line-up, the Chinese badminton squad or Germany's luge crew.

The toughest side to get into this year will be the South Korean women's golf team for the Rio Olympics in August.

Led by world No. 2 Park In Bee, the Koreans dominate the world rankings, filling seven of the top 15 spots as of yesterday.

The rankings are pertinent because the International Golf Federation has limited participating countries to two entries each - and up to four if all are in the top 15 - at the Summer Games in Brazil, where the sport will feature for the first time since 1904. The women's event was only held once, at the 1900 edition.

Selection will be based on world ranking points. Both the men's and women's strokeplay events will have a 60-player field and the cut-off date for qualifying is July 11.

Currently, Park, Kim Sei Young (world No. 5), Chun In Gee (No. 6) and Amy Yang (No. 7) are in the running for coveted places on the Korean team.

With 10 more Koreans in the top 30, the roll call of those set to miss out includes past Major champions Ryu So Yeon (No. 8), Choi Na Yeon (No. 19) and former world No. 1 Shin Ji Yai (No. 29).

Olympic fever is sweeping the East Asian country. Every Monday for the past year, the major local newspapers publish a rankings table detailing which Korean golfer has made the team and who has dropped out.

Regardless of which city or tournament Kim, 23, is playing in, she can expect a weekly call from her grandmother in Seoul to update her on her current status.

The 2015 LPGA Rookie of the Year told The Straits Times last week: "It's funny how she's so worried I won't make the team. I guess there's some pressure but I try not to think about it too much and (instead) just about playing well."

While South Korea, with a total of 81 Olympic golds, is the third-most successful Asian country after China (201) and Japan (130), nothing less than a dominant victory by Kim and her team-mates will do for their 51 million countrymen.

Koreans have won 26 times in the past two years on the LPGA Tour and have accounted for 12 of the 23 Majors since 2011.

Adding to the pressure will be the presence of five-time Major winner Pak Se Ri, 38, who will coach the women's team and is seen by many of the younger players as a mentor as well as a living legend.

Choi's 2012 US Open win came on the Blackwolf Run course in Wisconsin, the same venue where Pak triumphed in 1998 and inspired future generations of Korean girls.

Said Choi, 28: "Everyone thinks South Korea will win gold, that it is guaranteed. But it's not going to be easy. There will be a lot of good players who also want to win."

Among those fired up to become the first female golfer to win an Olympic gold - American Margaret Abbott took home a porcelain bowl for her victory at the 1900 Paris Games, the only Olympics in which winners received valuable artefacts instead of medals - are New Zealand's world No. 1 Lydia Ko and third-ranked Lexi Thompson of the United States.

Yang, who turns 27 a month before the Olympics, is desperate to make the cut.

She said: "It's going to be very special to be part of it because it's the first one after such a long time.

"There are five Majors every year but only one Olympics every four years. Who knows if I'll be still playing or good enough for the next one in Tokyo in 2020."

The future is certainly unpredictable. Before she took up golf at 12, Kim was in love with taekwondo and her first experience of the Olympics was staying up late to watch her hero Moon Dae Sung win the men's +80kg gold at the 2004 Athens Games.

Said Kim: "It was my dream to represent my country at the Olympics. I thought it would be in taekwondo but golf is not a bad alternative either."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 07, 2016, with the headline 'Olympic race tight for South Koreans who dominate Tour'. Print Edition | Subscribe