Coronavirus pandemic

Golf, with masks in tow, returns in South Korea

Park Sung-hyun blasting out of a bunker on the 18th hole during the first round of the KLPGA Championship at Lakewood Country Club in Yangju, South Korea. She finished her round with a 73, six behind the pace as the world's third-ranked player and ot
Park Sung-hyun blasting out of a bunker on the 18th hole during the first round of the KLPGA Championship at Lakewood Country Club in Yangju, South Korea. She finished her round with a 73, six behind the pace as the world's third-ranked player and other leading golfers returned to competitive action for the first time since the virus-enforced shutdown.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

YANGJU (South Korea) • Players were ordered to keep two metres apart as women's professional golf returned in South Korea yesterday. But six strokes off the lead was not the distance Park Sung-hyun had in mind after the opening round of the KLPGA Championship.

The two-time Major winner and world No. 3, the marquee player in the 150-strong field, admitted to struggling on the fast greens at Lakewood Country Club after carding a one-over 73. Her first and only birdie at her first tournament of the year came at the 16th hole.

"I haven't figured out the greens here yet, and I didn't put a good putting stroke on any holes today," she told Yonhap News Agency.

"I grew more accustomed to the speed of the greens on the back nine. I expect myself to play better tomorrow than today."

She was not the only top player who struggled. Fellow South Korean Lee Jeong-eun, the world No. 10, also signed for a 73 while sixth-ranked Kim Sei-young, a nine-time winner on the LPGA Tour, shot a 74.

Joint leaders Bae Seon-woo, Kim Char-young and Hyun Se-lin all shot 67.

Bae, who plays on the Japan Golf Tour completed two weeks of self-isolation only six days ago following her arrival from Japan. But she did not show any rust, picking up five birdies against no bogeys.

"I tend to lose my feel if I miss even three days of practice, and I was quite worried about this week because I didn't hold my clubs for 14 days," she told Yonhap after her first competitive round since December. "Now that I am back playing a tournament, I feel alive."

But with spectators barred, it was an unusually quiet round in Yangju, a city just north of Seoul.

Players were advised to keep two metres apart on the course and minimise physical contact, while touching the pin without gloves was prohibited.

Players had to wear masks before and after their rounds, but were allowed to forego it during play, which most players decided to.

Apart from the host broadcaster, media were restricted to the first and 10th tees, with personnel required to wear masks at all times.

"I was surprised to see so many cameras at the first tee, feeling as if I was seeing a gallery," Park said. "From the second tee, it became all quiet and you could hear every little sound. It felt a little boring, yet refreshing."

The tournament, normally overlooked outside South Korea, is the first high-level women's golf to be played since the US-based LPGA suspended its tour in February.

With sports fans around the world long deprived of live action, rights have been sold to broadcasters in countries including the US, Canada and Australia.

"Interest is very high since this is the first golf tour in the world amid the pandemic," the KLGPA said in a statement.

A stellar field is chasing the 220 million won (S$254,300) winner's cheque from a tournament-record purse of 3 billion won.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 15, 2020, with the headline 'Golf, with masks in tow, returns in South Korea'. Print Edition | Subscribe