Golf: Three in the hunt for glory at the Tokyo Olympics

(From left) Ariya Jutanugarn, Amy Yang and Yan Jing are back in the game in the chase for Olympic success in Tokyo. PHOTOS: AFP

SINGAPORE - The 2016 Rio Olympic Games was one of near misses and disappointment for golfers Ariya Jutanugarn (Thailand), Amy Yang (South Korea) and Yan Jing (China). After a long five-year wait, the trio are back in the game in the chase for Olympic success in Tokyo.

Hit by injury in 2016, Ariya eyes winning return to the Olympics

Ariya Jutanugarn had looked unstoppable at the 2016 Rio Olympics as the Thai golfer marked the return of the sport after a 116-year absence by storming to the top of the women's leaderboard.

A hot favourite for the gold medal, the then-world No. 2 had just a month ago become the first Thai player to win a Major with her victory the Women's British Open.

But Ariya's title run came to an abrupt halt as an injury to her left knee forced her to withdraw in the third round of the tournament.

Recalling the despair she felt, she said on Saturday (May 1): "I was really disappointed because (I wanted to represent) Thailand and the Olympics is one of the biggest tournaments in the world.

"We have to understand that injuries can happen any time as athletes so just have to understand that and take care of myself by making sure I stay healthy."

Now, the 25-year-old is fighting for another shot at Olympic success.

As it stands, the world No. 34 currently holds the second and final spot to represent Thailand at the Olympics, but her elder sister Moriya is not far behind at world No. 42.

She said: "This time the rankings are pretty close so I don't know if I'm going to get in or not, but if I'm able to play, I really want to represent Thailand."

After her Rio campaign ended prematurely, Ariya bounced back a week later by winning the Canadian Women's Open - her fifth title of the LPGA Tour season.

She then rose to the top of the world rankings in 2017 - another first for a Thai golfer - and had an impressive 2018 that saw her named the Rolex Player of the Year.

But she could not replicate her blistering form in 2019 and went without a win that year, although she had 10 top-10 finishes in 29 events she took part in.

While that winless run was tough to endure, Ariya believes that it taught her some valuable lessons as she attempts to qualify for her second Olympics.

She said: "One of my main jobs was to just keep doing what was under my control, the outcome may not always be what I want or like. I have to keep my head down and keep doing the same stuff."

Korea's Yang gunning for second Olympic outing

At Rio 2016, South Korea's Amy Yang watched as her compatriot Park In-bee clinched the first women's Olympic golf gold medal in 116 years ahead of New Zealand's Lydia Ko and China's Feng Shanshan.

Yang had just narrowly missed out on a place on the podium after ending with a 275 total, placing her joint fourth with Japan's Harukyo Nomura and the United States' Stacy Lewis, one shot behind bronze medallist Feng.

While she admits that she would have liked to win a medal, Yang is focused solely on the present as she is gunning for a repeat appearance at the Olympics in Tokyo.

"It would've been amazing and an honour if I'd won a medal but I did my best. Me joining team Korea was the biggest thing I'd achieved," said Yang.

"I had such a great time. (Pak) Se-ri was leading our group and it was great to see (Park) In-bee win. The golf course was nice, I had a great time and I wanted to play in the next one."

But Yang, 31, knows that securing a spot at the upcoming Olympics will not be easy and that she "needs to play really, really good".

South Korea boasts the tightest race for Olympic berths with four players ranked in the top 15 and four others occupying the next five rungs of the world rankings.

Each country is limited to a maximum of four entrants for the Olympics and based on the current standings, there are 12 South Korean golfers between the world No. 44 Yang and world No. 9 Kim Hyo-joo, who is the ranked the fourth-highest.

In 2016, the battle for Olympic spots in the Korean team went down to the wire, with six golfers vying for the coveted four positions just before the US Women's Open, the final tournament before the Olympic field was confirmed.

Yang eventually took the final spot after finishing tied third at the US Women's Open, joining Park, Chun In-gee and Kim Sei-young.

While her last title win was at the 2019 Honda LPGA Thailand, Yang is pleased with the progress she has made with her physical and mental game over the past year.

She will return to her happy hunting ground in Pattaya next - an event she has won thrice - in a bid for more world ranking points.

She said: "I like the golf course, I like the place, it's sad that we can't go outside the hotel, but I'm still excited to hear that it will happen.

"Next week will be my fourth tournament in a row so I just need to take it easy, have a good rest and prepare for the tournament."

Yan takes another swing at Olympics after missing out on Rio

Just months into her freshman year at the University of Washington in 2015, China's Yan Jing turned professional in a bid to qualify for the following year's Rio Olympics.

But she fell short of securing an Olympic berth, with bronze medallist Feng Shanshan and Lin Xiyu representing China eventually.

With six years of LPGA Tour experience under her belt now, the 25-year-old, who grew up in Singapore, is taking another swing at Olympic qualification.

But with more experience comes added expectations and Yan knows that making it to this year's Tokyo Games will be an uphill task.

Her world ranking of No. 117 puts her as the second replacement behind world No. 61 Yu Liu, who currently occupies the country's second and final spot for the July 23-Aug 8 Games.

Yan, who is in Singapore for the HSBC Women's World Championship, said: "It's definitely a big goal of mine and right now I'm not in the best position and I need to play relatively well in order to make it so I hope I can do that.

"I was one spot shy (for the Rio Games). Ever since the beginning of my professional career, I've wanted to make it happen. When I'd just turned pro, I was trying to get my bearings on tour. I really wanted to do it, but it didn't happen so I tried to put it behind me."

This year, Yan has made three cuts in six starts, with her best performance coming at March's Kia Classic where she finished tied 12th.

Before the season began, she returned to Singapore for about one-and-a-half months and trained at the Laguna National and Seletar Country Club.

The Chinese golfer is hoping to reap a Tokyo reward here this time, adding: "Every year, all the girls are getting better and I think for everyone, the big goal is to make it to the Olympics. Right now, if I face obstacles, I'm better prepared because I'm more experienced to deal with them, but I can only control what I do on the course and at the end of the day, you can play your best and still not be able to get it."

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