LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – It’s an Olympic year, which means Inbee Park is slamming down the gas pedal. For the past three seasons, the LPGA Hall of Famer has waited until late February/early March to get her year underway.
This year, however, with Tokyo on the line, the 2016 gold-medal winner is making her debut at the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions followed by next week’s new event in Boca Raton, Florida. Then it’s off to Australia, where 31-year-old Park will tee it up for the first time in six years. She has committed to both the ISPS Handa Vic Open at 13th Beach and the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open at Royal Adelaide.
“No matter how I say it, it’s definitely an important year for me,” said Park, who believes this might be her last chance at another medal. “Even whether I get an opportunity or whether I don’t, I think I just want to have a season that I won’t regret. I just want to give myself a lot of opportunities.”
A maximum of four South Korean players can qualify for the 2020 Olympics. Right now, Park, who ranks No. 16 in the world, is the second alternate on the list behind Hyo-Joo Kim.
The top four South Koreans who would currently qualify are Jin Young Ko (No. 1), Sung Hyun Park (No. 1), Sei Young Kim (No. 5) and Jeong Eun Lee6 (No. 7). Only Kim competed in 2016.
The qualification cutoff for the women’s field is June 29, immediately after the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.
The TOC marks the first time Park has played in an official event with a pro-am format. She likes the fact that the atmosphere at the Four Seasons Golf and Sports Club is more relaxed than usual. She googled her playing partners, two-time Super Bowl champ Richard Dent and Mark Cantin, president of field operations for QBE North America. Park moved to the Orlando area when she moved to the United States as a junior player and said the Four Seasons course, though new to her, feels familiar.
“The greens are in perfect shape,” said Park. “This golf course will need a lot of birdies to win, but there’s a couple of holes that still the Bermuda rough is sometimes tough around the greens. So you’re just going to have to avoid going in the rough around the greens. I think that will be the big task. The greens are pretty soft, so I think we can play a little bit aggressive this week.”
Park wanted to kick off her year on tracks that she’s never seen before to get a fresh start in her mind. The first four tournament courses of the year will be new for the 19-time winner.
Even though she’s a seven-time major winner, Park said more people back home in South Korea recognize her now that she’s an Olympic champion. At the 2018 Winter Olympics in Seoul, Park carried the torch during the opening ceremony.
The Olympics have become a driving force in Park’s spectacular career. Even her dog is named Rio. Asked if she might get a second dog, Tokyo, should another medal come, Park put on the brakes.
“I was thinking about getting another (dog),” said Park, “but he currently has a girlfriend living next to, the neighbor. I don’t think he’s going to need another. He’s doing great.”