RIO DE JANEIRO — Se Ri Pak could hear the burst of noise from 500 yards away and it wasn’t hard to figure out what was causing the commotion.
Inbee Park had made one last birdie.
Pak could hear it from the back of the 18th green at Olympic Golf Course. She was the team leader for South Korea at the Olympics, the player who inspired a nation that has become the most formidable in women’s golf. Park with a gold medal around her neck only affirmed that.
Long ago, in another big moment for women’s golf in South Korea, their roles were reversed.
Park was fast asleep in her apartment outside Seoul when she was jarred awake in the middle of the night. The 9-year-old girl came downstairs to find her parents in front of the TV, cheering wildly as Pak won the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open at Blackwolf Run, a landmark moment for golf in South Korea.
Two days later, Park wrapped her hands around a golf club for the first time.
Ten years later, she was the youngest U.S. Women’s Open champion ever.
That was the first of seven majors for Park, and a big reason why this year she became the youngest player (27) to qualify for the LPGA Hall of Fame. Her most recent major was the Women’s British Open last year to complete the career Grand Slam.
And now she’s an Olympic champion.
“I’ve won majors, but I haven’t won a gold medal,” Park said after her five-shot victory over Lydia Ko, the No. 1 player in women’s golf. “So this feels very, very special, nothing I want to exchange. … Being able to receive the gold medal on the golf course was an unforgettable moment.”
She had been coping with a ligament injury in her left thumb that led her to take two months off from the LPGA Tour — including the U.S. Women’s Open and her title defense at the Women’s British Open — to get ready for the Olympics. She wanted to test her thumb in competition, so she played a Korean LPGA event and missed the cut.
All that did was spark chatter that she should give up her spot in Rio to another South Korean, and it created unnecessary confusion and doubt for Park.
She responded with a quiet determination.
“I really wanted to do well this week to show a lot of people that I can still play,” Park said.
But this victory was more than just validation.
An Olympic gold medal, particularly under these circumstances, should allow Park to take her place among the best in LPGA history.
Think about it. She had not faced top competition in two months and had not broken par in any round since April, the last time she even finished a tournament. She wasn’t sure she could play the Olympics amid speculation she might not ever play again, especially after she fulfilled her final requirement in June for the Hall of Fame.
“There was nothing guaranteed because I haven’t played that well this season, and I haven’t really played that many events with the injury,” Park said. “So I had to overcome a lot of obstacles.”
And then over four days in Rio, it was as if she had never left.
She was one shot behind after the first round to Ariya Jutanugarn, the No. 2 player in the world with four victories and a major this year. She had a one-shot lead over Stacy Lewis, her rival from two years ago. She played in the final group with Ko, another four-time winner and major champion this year.
None had a chance.
Park kept the ball in play and let her putter to do the rest.
“Inbee Park is the coolest individual,” said Peter Dawson, the former R&A chief who now is president of the International Golf Federation. “And I think she is the best putter in the world, male or female.”
Park wants to start a family, so maybe retirement is closer than she lets on. She said on a couple of occasions last week that she had no retirement plans.
Then again, how much longer Park plays is no longer relevant.
She already has earned a spot in the same conversation as Pak. There will never be another like Pak, whose legacy goes beyond her five majors and 25 victories on the LPGA Tour. She was the pioneer, whose exploits woke up a little girl in South Korea and inspired greatness.
Just to be alongside her speaks to what Park has achieved.