JOHNS CREEK, Georgia – When Danielle Kang learned in May 2020 that qualification for the Olympic golf tournament had been extended by 15 months due to COVID-19, she panicked. And then she cried. By this point, she had mathematically secured her place in Tokyo, and extension had essentially snatched her dream from her. It meant so much to her that the idea that she could achieve her “goal in life”, take it away from her and then fail again, was devastating … even if it was just a hypothesis.
Kang’s story has a happy ending. She continued to play when the LPGA resumed its season last summer and has once again secured her spot in Tokyo. And it’s their passion for the event and the passion of their teammates that seem so out of place when you’ve only seen the confluence of golf and Olympics from the men’s side.
One of the biggest post-US Open stories is the ongoing barrage of men choosing not to compete in the Olympics after men’s qualification closed on Sunday. Dustin Johnson and Adam Scott got their names out of the running in early 2021, but recently Tokyo lost Louis Oosthuizen, Tyrrell Hatton, Sergio Garcia and Martin Kaymer. As John Feinstein wrote in March, even those who end up making the trip are not necessarily overjoyed, and the Olympics are not on par with a major in golf. With the Games beginning, we probably still have the end of the Exodus not seen.
Which makes it at least a little strange that at the Atlanta Athletic Club, home of this week’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, not only are the women in the qualifying position excited to play in the Olympics, but also the race for the last spots – the Women’s qualification ends on Sunday — is one of the most compelling stories of the week.
The main drama revolves around the US and South Korea contingents. Both countries are entitled to four places in the Olympic field because they have at least as many players in the top 15 of the Rolex rankings. Either way, the first three are safe: Jin Young Ko, Inbee Park, and Sei Young Kim for Korea; and Nelly Korda, Danielle Kang and Lexi Thompson for the US (Thompson loves the Olympics so much that she got the Olympic rings tattooed after the competition in Rio) It’s the fourth place the intrigue brews – on Korean side, Hyo-Joo Kim tries to stop some of her compatriots while Jessica Korda has to defend her place against American challengers like Ally Ewing, Jennifer Kupcho and Austin Ernst.
When several players in the qualifying position spoke to the media on Tuesday, there was a marked contrast in the discussion about the Olympic Games. While the conversation among the men was characterized by hesitation, there is tremendous excitement among the women.
“Being on the Olympic team for the second time in my career, achieving what I wanted to achieve, was a very big goal of my career,” said Inbee Park, the 2016 gold medalist. “I know a lot of Korean girls, I think being on the team is one of their most wanted goals. I have achieved a lot for myself in golf too, won many majors, won many tournaments, but winning the gold medal was something completely different. “
Ko, number 1 in the Rolex ranking, beamed at the end of their press conference when the topic of the Olympics came up.
“Yes!” she chirped, practically jumping with energy. “It’s really hard to get to the Tokyo Olympics, especially the Korean team, because everyone knows that Korean players who play every week are really good. Everyone is like, perfect players. So it was hard to get in there, but I made it. I’m so happy.”
Kim, who secured her place as the third player from Korea, said her “greatest wish” was to make the Olympics and represent her country. Meanwhile, the Korda sisters stressed that they were focused on that week, but each lamented the fact that their parents couldn’t come along to enjoy the Tokyo experience if they both made the US team.
However, it was Kang who was most exuberant about the reality of playing in the Olympics.
“I can’t say what the Olympics mean to a lot of people, but it’s everything to me,” she said. “Ever since I trained Taekwondo to become an Olympian, the Olympics have been my dream … it’s something I’ve wanted to achieve all my life.”
When asked how to explain the difference in perspective between men and women, Kang declined to speculate. Park could only point out the planning issues associated with the men’s game (the Open Championship is played two weeks in advance and the FedEx Cup playoffs begin three weeks later).
Maybe it is, and maybe the contrast goes deeper in perspective. In Atlanta, it was clear that women cherish and respect the history and significance of the Olympics and are full of excitement when they compete for reasons that men simply did not understand. Despite the negative press surrounding golf in Tokyo, the Olympic spirit still exists if you know where to look.