SEOUL, June 29 (Yonhap) – This may be shocking to some: The world’s best golfer right now is not from South Korea.
This title belongs to Nelly Korda from the United States. She was freshly anointed number 1 in the world after winning her first major of her career at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship near Atlanta over the weekend. Korda also won a regular tour event the week before and has three LPGA-leading wins in 2021. She also leads the tour in money, with average total birdies and Player of the Year points.
Korda left their competition in the dust, and South Korean stars were unable to face a major challenge.
That’s a worrying development for South Korea as the Tokyo Olympics are less than a month away.
The field of 60 players has been finalized based on the latest world rankings published on Monday (US time). The top 15 players qualified automatically, with a maximum of four per country. South Korea and the US are the only two nations that send four players to Tokyo.
South Korea is represented by: Ko Jin-young (2nd place), Park In-bee (3rd place), Kim Sei-young (4th place) and Kim Hyo-joo (6th place). Park, an LPGA Hall of Famer, is the reigning Olympic Champion, and Kim Sei-young is also going to her second consecutive Olympic Games after finishing 25th at the Rio de Janeiro Games five years ago. All four players have won at least one LPGA major and participating in the Olympic pressure cooker shouldn’t be a problem for the quartet.
However, its most recent form may be a different story.
Of the group, only Park and Kim Hyo-joo have a win this year. They are also the only South Korean players to have reached the LPGA winners circle this season. That makes it two wins by South Korean players in 15 tournaments without a big title in the mix with three of the five big tournaments in the books.
That pales in comparison to the recent dominance of South Korean players. In the 2020 season shortened by the pandemic, they won seven out of 18 LPGA events, including three out of four majors – one major, the Evian Championship, was canceled.
In 2019, the South Koreans won 15 of 32 tournaments and three of the five majors.
The list goes on and on: nine out of 32 tournaments in 2018 and 12 out of 33, including three majors, in 2017.
Ko started in 2021 with four top 10 placements in their first five tournaments and then only managed one more top 10 placement in their next five events.
Kim Sei-young, who has clinched at least one win every year since her rookie campaign in 2015, has three top 10 finishes in eleven starts.
Park was the most enduring of all. With seven top 10 placements, she is second overall on the tour and is the only South Korean Olympic participant who does not miss a cut in 2021 or end up outside the top 40.
Kim Hyo-joo finished third in the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship but was nine behind Korda. And that was the topic of the South Koreans in the majors this year: To land in the top 10 without really threatening them.
In the first major of the season, ANA Inspiration, Kim Sei-young shared third place, seven strokes behind winner Patty Tavatanakit. At the US Women’s Open, Ko and Park tied seventh place, and they were five strokes from the playoff between champions Yuka Saso and Nasa Hataoka.
South Korea has produced LPGA Player of the Year Award winners for three of the past four seasons. In 2017, Park Sung-hyun and Ryu So-yeon were co-winners. Ko Jin-young received this honor in 2019 and Kim Sei-young followed in 2020.
In 2021, Park In-bee will be the next South Korean pursuer of Korda and is fourth with 70 points, 91 points behind the American.
Korda’s win over the weekend meant South Korean players survived seven tournaments without a win, the longest drought of its kind since 2014.
There are still four LPGA tournaments to go before the women’s Olympic golf tournament kicks off on August 4th at the Kasumigaseki Country Club just outside the Japanese capital. It includes the fourth major of the year, the Evian Championship, which will be held in France from July 22nd to 25th. These are opportunities for South Korean stars to change the narrative towards Tokyo.
Perhaps the current form is overrated and does not play a role in the battle for Olympic glory. Park In-bee itself is living proof of this.
She struggled with a left thumb injury for most of 2016. She played in 10 tournaments prior to the Olympics and missed the cut twice while retreating three times.
Park stopped playing the LPGA event after early June, and she considered skipping the Olympics amid rumors of her resignation looming.
She committed to the Olympics about a month before the tournament and almost won the gold medal by then.
To this day, this gold medal holds a special place in the heart of the Hall of Famer.
“I’ve achieved a lot in golf, won a lot of majors, won a lot of tournaments, but winning gold was something completely different,” said Park last week before playing at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. “I want a lot of players to think the same way and treat the Olympics the same way. I think it’s definitely something to experience.”
Kim Hyo-joo said she was happy with the state of her game despite being well out of the running over the weekend.
“It’s been a while since I wasn’t disappointed on the last day and it feels great to get the feeling of my punches back too. So overall really happy,” she said. “I’m proud of myself, not because I’m closer to the leader, but because I’m generally satisfied with the turns I’ve made.”