SEOUL: As golf returns to the Olympics after more than a century, South Korea’s women golfers are targeting a medal sweep and the start of a golden dynasty to match their archery compatriots.
The decision to bring golf back as an individual event should suit the Korean players who are products of an ultra-competitive domestic tour that continues to churn out world-class players.
The qualifying rules for Rio de Janeiro were based on global rankings, with the world’s top 15 players on July 11 getting an automatic berth, with a maximum of four of those from any one country.
The rest of the 60-woman field is made up from those next in line on the world rankings list up to a maximum of two players per country.
At the cut-off date, South Korea accounted for half the women’s top 10 slots and had four more players in the top 20. But the restriction to four competitors meant some seriously talented golfers missed out.
“It shows how great those players are playing week in, week out,” world number one Lydia Ko said in a recent interview with ESPN.
“I’m kind of glad I’m not amongst that,” said Ko, who is South Korean by birth but represents New Zealand, where she has lived since the age of six.
South Korea are the only country eligible to send the maximum four women golfers to Rio, with world number three Park In-Bee leading the medal hopes. She is joined by the fifth-ranked Kim Sei-Young, Amy Yang (seventh) and Chun In-Gee (ninth).
The depth of talent is such that the world number 10, Jang Ha-Na, failed to make the cut as did Ryu So-Yeun (12th), Park Sung-Hyun (16th), Lee Bo-Mee (17th) and Kim Hyo-Joo (19th).
Not only that, South Korea boast another 11 in the women’s official world rankings top 50.
The depth of talent echoes that in the South Korean women’s archery team, where competition for Olympic spots is always intensely fierce.
The women archers have won 14 of the 15 golds on offer since the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
The golfers will have to overcome some stiff competition to achieve that level of dominance, but coach Pak Se-Ri is setting the bar as high as it will go.
An iconic sporting figure in South Korea, Pak won 25 LPGA titles, including five majors, and is widely credited with inspiring the “Korean wave” in women’s golf.
“Our goal is to bring back the gold, silver and bronze medals, but honestly I don’t want to pressure the players,” she told a press conference last week.
Among those standing in the way of a Korean podium sweep are the formidable figures of top-ranked Ko and world number two Brooke Henderson of Canada.
There are also concerns over the form of world number three Park who has spent months battling a thumb injury that forced her to withdraw from multiple events, including last weekend’s British Open.
If any further incentive were needed, the Korea Golf Association has offered a cash prize of 300 million won ($265,000) to anyone bringing back gold.
“It’s not mandatory for us to give prize money but we want to motivate our players,” said KGA official Ko Sang-Won.
Unlike the men’s side of the golf event, the women’s field has been largely unaffected by fears over the Zika virus.
The world’s four top-ranked men — Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy — have all opted to avoid Rio, citing the virus which has been linked to birth defects.
While Pak acknowledged some health concerns, she said they were overcome by the lure of a possible Olympic medal.
“Korean players seem to attach different meaning to playing in the Olympics than others,” she said.
The South Korean athletes in Rio have been given special uniforms infused with mosquito repellent to combat the Zika risk.