The South Korean finished 3rd in a 3-way playoff before darkness suspended the LPGA’s season opener, but she aims for a shot at defending her gold medal later this year at the Tokyo Games
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Four years after she became the youngest player to earn her place in the LPGA Hall of Fame, South Korea’s Inbee Park, now 31, typically hasn’t been eager to get her season started. That changed this year, and for good reason.
“I always started a little bit late, probably the end of February or early March,’’ Park said. “I’m starting early because it’s an important year, with the Olympics in the summer. There’s a lot of tournaments before the Olympics, and I just wanted to play courses I haven’t played before.’’
The Tranquilo Golf Club at Four Seasons Golf & Sports Club was the first, and Park played it well – except for one hole in Sunday’s playoff for the title in the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions. It was the first event on the LPGA’s schedule.
Park, who has 19 LPGA victories, was in position for No. 20 to start 2020. She took a two-stroke lead into the final round, lost it briefly but wound up in a playoff with Japan’s Nasa Hataoka and Mexico’s Gaby Lopez. Only the 211-yard par-3 18th hole was used in the playoff.
On the third time around, Park put her tee shot in the water, and her tournament was over. Hataoka and Lopez struggled through two more playoff holes before darkness halted play at 6:04 p.m. The playoff was scheduled to resume at 8 a.m. Monday (scores).
“It’s a different experience,’’ said Lopez, 26, a one-time LPGA winner who played college golf at Arkansas, “but I’m just happy to be able to have a chance [Monday].’’
Hataoka, whose country will host the 2020 Olympics, had no problem with the stoppage in play. “It was really tough to read the greens,’’ said Hataoka, a 21-year-old who already has won three times on the LPGA.
For Park, it was a tough loss, but she wasn’t deflated.
“I played good golf this week, just not great today,’’ she said. “I feel a lot of confidence after playing this week.’’
Park won the gold medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics as golf returned to the games after a 112-year absence. The other medalists – New Zealand’s Lydia Ko (silver) and China’s Shanshan Feng (bronze) – bypassed the Tournament of Champions, an event that also included a celebrity division.
John Smoltz, a Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher, defended his celebrity title with a nine-point victory in the modified-Stableford format (scores), but the LPGA players proved to be a much more competitive bunch. Park, Lopez and Hataoka tied at 13-under 271 through 72 holes. Korean Mi Jung Hur charged in with an 8-under-par 63 and finished one stroke out of the playoff, in a tie for fourth with Canadian Brooke Henderson (67) at 12-under 272. Annie Park shot 64 and finished sixth at 11-under 273 as the top American.
Though Park won by five strokes in the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, she is not guaranteed a title defense. She must make the Korean team first, and last year she didn’t even win a tournament. Her Korean rivals, though, won 15 times in 2019. The U.S. was second in victories on the LPGA last year, with six.
“The U.S. men’s team is pretty tough, but in women’s golf, Korea has to be definitely the toughest team to make,’’ Park said. Sei Young Kim, who was paired with Park in the last group on Sunday, tied for seventh with American Lexi Thompson. Kim’s finish gave South Korea three players among the top eight here.
Only four players per country can compete in the Olympics, which run July 24-Aug. 9 in Tokyo. The golf will be played at Kasumigaseki Country Club, which has hosted the Japan Open four times and most recently was the site of the 2010 Asian Amateur in 2010.
Only 26 LPGA players competed in the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions, which gathered winners from the previous two seasons. The first full-field event starts Thursday in Boca Raton. It’s a new $2 million event, called the Gainbridge LPGA at Boca Rio.