Park eyes Olympic repeat as 70th LPGA season tees off

MIAMI (AFP) – South Korea’s seven-time major champion Park In-Bee is playing this week’s LPGA season-opening Tournament of Champions with an eye toward defending her Olympic gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics.

World number 16 Park will compete against 25 rivals at the Four Seasons Orlando starting today as the LPGA launches its 70th anniversary season with winners from 2018 and 2019 playing alongside celebrities in their own event.

Park captured Rio Olympic women’s golf gold by five strokes over New Zealand’s Lydia Ko and hopes to repeat at Tokyo on August 5-8. She hasn’t played in January since 2016 until now.

“I always start the season a little bit late, probably the end of February or early March,” Park said. “This year I’m starting early because it’s an important year with the Olympics in the summer.”

But right now, the toughest Olympic squad to crack in women’s golf doesn’t include Park. She has to be among the top four from her homeland and be among the top 15 in the world rankings to reach Tokyo. Right now she’s only second alternate.

File photo shows Park In-Bee playing a shot during the HSBC Women’s Champions tournament at Sentosa Golf Club in Singapore. PHOTO: AFP

“In women’s golf, definitely is the toughest team to make,” Park said. “It’s definitely an important year for me. Whether I get an (Olympic) 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.”

“It’s definitely a goal for me,” Park said. “The rankings cut off in June I want to play as many events as I can before and give myself some opportunities to play good golf before then so I feel like I’m in shape.”

Olympic qualifications ends after June’s Women’s PGA Championship and as of now the South Korean four would be top-ranked Ko Jin-young, second-ranked Park Sung-hyun, fifth-ranked Kim Sei-young and seventh-ranked Lee6 Jeong-eun, the reigning United States (US) Women’s Open champion.

Park, the youngest player ever inducted to the LPGA Hall of Fame, was a torchbearer at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea.

While 13 founding members played 15 events for just over USD40,000 in the 1950 inuagural LPGA campaign, more than USD75 million is at stake in 34 events for the world’s top women’s golfers.

Defending champion Ji Eun-hee, ranked 34th, will be pushed to repeat by a field that features six of the world top 10 – third-ranked Nelly Korda and fourth-ranked US compatriot Danielle Kang, fifth-ranked Kim, Japan’s sixth-ranked Nasa Hataoka, Canada’s eighth-ranked Brooke Henderson and American number 10 Lexi Thompson.

Henderson has won at least twice in four consecutive years and wants to extend that run.

“I’d love to keep that streak alive. It has been pretty important to me the last few years, especially with how dense the field is in terms of talent,” Henderson said.

“It’s really important to me to keep that going and I feel like to get another major championship win is hopefully on my radar.”