Inbee Park: "The Olympics have taken me to the next level"

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The moment the ball fell into the hole, history was made. A unique champion had been born. In that instant, Republic of Korea's Inbee Park became the first ever Olympic gold medallist in golfing history to achieve the LPGA grand slam - the golden grand slam.

At the beginning of 2016, Park was one of the favourites to win the women’s golf gold medal in Rio, having won seven majors over the previous eight years.

However, the previous two months hadn’t gone smoothly.

During that time, she hadn’t competed in top-level competition and had missed out on the past two majors after sustaining a thumb injury. Her rivals, including the world no.1 Lydia Ko of New Zealand, Shanshan Feng of People's Republic of China and Park’s compatriot Amy Yang, also had their hearts set on clinching a gold medal as golf returned to the Olympics after a 116-year absence.

Given the situation she was facing, Park’s prospects of gold were somewhat gloomy, while her problems with injury worried her loyal fans.

But when the tournament began, it became clear those worries were unfounded. Park placed second after the first round and seized possession of the lead in the second and third rounds. On the greens of Brazil, the golfer proved she had nothing to fear, playing with a poker face that has become her trademark.

In the final round, Park was as solid as people had become accustomed to, rebutting Shanshan Feng and Lydia Ko’s attempts to close the gap with sharp putting. Her record on the final day included seven birdies and five pars, as she finally topped the podium with a 16 under par score of 268.

Tokyo 2020 spoke to Park as she began preparations to defend her Olympic title, from the confines of her home.

Inbee Park of Republic of Korea poses during a practice round prior to the start of the women's golf during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Inbee Park of Republic of Korea poses during a practice round prior to the start of the women's golf during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
2016 Getty Images

Q: Can you describe the moment you won Olympic gold?

The year, 2016, was my most meaningful, having won the Olympic gold, which is priceless to me. But it was also the roughest year of my entire career. I felt so much pressure because of my first Olympics and also the injury. That year, I struggled mentally and technically. I thought that I had to overcome those pressures and was desperate to accomplish something. I have never felt like this before.

That being so, the year of 2016 stands out, with the Olympic gold and all those experiences. The Olympics amazed and excited me as much as I could have imagined. Even though I have competed in many top-level tournaments, the Olympics was something different. I learned a lot from the experience and I love that such a good result came out of the struggle.

Q: What does the Olympics mean to you? What is the difference between the Olympics and the LPGA tour?

Competing in the Olympics is glorious, and it’s a tremendous responsibility. It was a turning point for me. The game made me see golf from a different point of view. Even if I had competed in many other competitions, the Olympics is definitely different. I can guarantee it. It is so much tougher, pressurised and glorious. The Olympics have taken me to the next level for sure.

Q: Can you tell us any behind-the-scenes stories from Rio?

The truth is…the only memories I have are of golf. I only remember the moments of swinging, putting, competing etc. as I was so into golf in Rio. I couldn't have cared less about the sights or any of the other events during the ten days of competition. During those days, I concentrated only on playing well on the green. It was the longest time of my life, and the Olympics ranks above any other competition in my career.

Q: How do you see the changes in golf after the Olympics?

Now that they are able to experience it themselves, I think golfers see the Olympics in a different way. And people who didn’t follow golf before have started to take more of an interest in golf. People recognise and cheer me on more when I am on the course. Golf seems much closer to the public than before.

Q: For a while after Rio, it was difficult for you to win titles. What do you think caused you to struggle?

Looking back on those days, my overall performance wasn’t bad. It was the putting. It was not as accurate as it was at my peak.

Q: How are you feeling these days? How do you maintain your condition under these circumstances?

I train at home these days. It’s been a long time since I’ve been at home like this, and I feel very relaxed. So far I’m well prepared mentally and physically for the restart.

Q: What went through your mind when you heard the Games were being postponed?

I thought it was the right decision. Health and safety are the most important things because people around the world are suffering with the virus. The Olympics must resume when everything is under control.

Q: Now that you have one more year to qualify for the Olympics, are you still aiming for back-to-back gold?

Of course I want to compete in the Games again. However, knowing what I do about the pressure and responsibility of the Games, I also think I need to prepare really well in order to succeed. Sure, I’ll do my best to qualify for the Olympics, but even if I can’t, I’ll gladly support my fellow athletes as there are excellent Korean golfers who have provisionally qualified. [However,] I am really looking forward to Tokyo 2020.

Q: What is your favourite memory of the Olympics?

The memory that impressed me most is the moment I was listening to the national anthem looking up at the national flag flying above me. I sincerely wanted the South Korean national anthem to resonate across the 18th green, and it really happened.

Q; What is your most important career goal?

As I have achieved many titles including the Olympic gold, I want to develop as an individual as well as a professional, with a calm and fearless mind.

Inbee Park from Republic of Korea reacts on the 18th green after winning gold during the Women's Golf Final at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)
Inbee Park from Republic of Korea reacts on the 18th green after winning gold during the Women's Golf Final at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)
2016 Getty Images