RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Inbee Park is taking a gold medal back to South Korea to show anyone who doubted whether she should play in the Olympics.
And to anyone who questioned her place in women’s golf.
Slowed all year by a thumb injury that led to speculation she might retire, Park was dominant as ever Saturday at Olympic Golf Course. She made three straight birdies early, never let anyone closer than three shots the rest of the way and closed with a 5-under 66 for a five-shot victory.
“Because I had an injury, a lot of people were saying maybe it was better to have another player in the field, which is understandable,” Park said. “But I really wanted to do well this week to show a lot of people that I can still play.”
She had a poker face and a putter that couldn’t miss, a combination that was too much for Lydia Ko or anyone else.
Even more remarkable is that Park had not faced top competition for two months. She took time off to recover, and to pour everything into being ready for the Olympics. But when she played a Korean LPGA event earlier this month and missed the cut, there was talk at home that someone else should go in her place.
“This is definitely one of the special moments in my golfing career and in my whole life,” Park said. “It feels great. It’s just really all I’ve wanted.”
Ko, who replaced Park at No. 1 in women’s golf 10 months ago, didn’t make a birdie until the seventh hole. The 19-year-old Kiwi at least made one that mattered. She holed an 8-foot birdie putt on the 18th for a 69 to claim the silver by one shot over Shanshan Feng of China, who also shot 69.
Park is 28 and already has won seven majors, including the career Grand Slam, and two months ago became the youngest player to qualify for the LPGA Hall of Fame.
This victory — the first gold medal in women’s golf since 1900 — might have topped them all.
She kept her composure during her three straight birdies early, a 30-foot birdie on the 13th that turned back the last challenge and her 10-foot birdie on the 17th. When she tapped in for par on the final hole, she threw both hands in the air and leaned back her head at the cloudy sky.
“I’ve won majors, but I haven’t won a gold medal, so this feels very, very special. Nothing I want to exchange,” she said. “I’m so honored to represent my country. Being able to receive the gold medal was an unforgettable moment.”
Asked if fans might have forgotten that she was pretty good, Park only smiled.
Ko, sitting next to her at a news conference, leaned into a microphone and said, “She’s really good. She’s not pretty good. She’s really, really good.”
The Americans had an outside chance at a medal. Stacy Lewis birdied the 16th and 17th holes, but missed a 15-foot birdie on the 18th and shot 66, one shot behind Feng. Gerina Piller, who played in the last group, was part of a three-way tie for third until missing three straight putts — two for par — on the back nine.
Maria Verchenova of Russia posted the lowest score, a 62 that featured the third hole-in-one of the tournament.
This final round, however, was all about Park.
South Korea has been the dominant nation in women’s golf, so a gold medal was no surprise.
Not many thought it would be Park because of her injury and poor form this year. She had not broken par on the LPGA Tour since April. She missed the cut or withdrew in her last four events, even skipping the U.S. Women’s Open and Women’s British Open to try to heal and get ready for the Olympics.
“There was a little bit of confusion from me whether I can perform well this week or not because I really haven’t performed well this year with the injury,” she said. “Being able to overcome injury this week and being able to play good, I’ve worked really hard for this week and hard work really paid off.”
The pressure was as great as she has ever felt. Fans dressed in red shirts held up South Korean flags for her to see behind every green and on the way to every tee. Park stared straight ahead and kept pouring in putts.
Ko’s best chance was around the turn. She made her first birdie on the seventh hole to cut the lead to five shots, and then hit a tee shot about 12 feet short of the flag at the par-3 eighth. Park answered with a 6-iron to 3 feet for another birdie. It was like that all day — all week.
Park finished at 16-under 268, the same score Justin Rose had when he won the gold medal in men’s golf.