These are exciting times for women’s golf.
The incomparable Inbee Park strolled to her 21st LPGA victory at the Kia Classic last Sunday. She was expecting to be a little rusty as it was her first competitive play for three months but she opened with a 66 and never looked back, cruising to a five-stroke victory over Lexi Thompson and Amy Olson. In doing so Park broke the run of three consecutive American victories on the LPGA tour – the Korda sisters, Nelly and Jessica, and Austin Ernst had ascended to the top of the podium in the first hatrick of starts – and at No 2 in the world rankings she looks set to challenge again for her spot in the South Korean Olympic golf team.
With seven majors tucked away in her back pocket and increasingly hampered by injury in the lead up to Rio in 2016 things did not look good for Park. Despite barely playing in the months before the Games, Park found herself qualified for the team but there were increasing calls for her to stand down and cede her spot to the next in line, her good friend So Yeon Ryu. This is where we witnessed a little of the ruthless streak required by all winners as Inbee stubbornly refused to bow to outside pressures and she went on to make her debut in the Games in the most unpromising of circumstances. Four days later we had witnessed one of golf’s great comebacks as Inbee, almost Buddha-like, serenely navigated her way to the gold medal which she had targeted months beforehand. It has, so far, been the pinnacle of her career.
It’s safe to say that Inbee “gets” the Olympics, something not shared by all professional golfers, particularly the men. She has long declared that were it not for the Olympics she might not still be playing. The 32-year old has not hidden her desire for a second gold medal and, despite the ANA Inspiration, the first of the women’s majors, taking place this week, making sure of being in Tokyo is uppermost in her mind. “I am pretty much eligible for pretty much anything in the game of golf,” said Park. “Plus, I am defending champion of that event and I’m not qualified. It’s just a very different approach. … It’s getting close. I wouldn’t say I’m safe, but I’m getting close.”
Like all South Korean golfers Inbee has been inspired throughout her career by the legendary Se Ri Pak, whose 1998 wins in the McDonald’s LPGA Championship and the US Women’s Open sparked in her own country a tsunami of interest and investment in golf in general and women’s golf in particular. That interest hasn’t abated one iota in the last 23 years and there are currently eight Korean players in the top 20 of the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings. Competition to be in Japan is fierce but if Inbee’s Kia Classic victory is anything to go by she won’t give up easily on her dream of a second consecutive gold medal. It makes for a fascinating few months ahead.
This week sees the second edition of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur. Cancelled last year because of COVID-19 it has been a long wait for these women, many of whom share the dream of competing in the final round over the famed Augusta National golf course. Indeed, many have delayed a move to the professional ranks just so they can tee it up this week. Eighty-two players will play the first 36 holes over neighbouring Champions Retreat in Augusta with the top 30 playing the final 18 holes at Augusta National. When Fred Ridley, the chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, announced in 2018 that the club intended to stage this new women’s event it was with the stated ambition “to inspire greater interest and participation in the women’s game by creating a new, exciting and rewarding pathway for these players to fulfil their dreams”.
Well, they couldn’t have hoped for a better inaugural event. Captivating the attention of millions, the final round had everything. The final pairing of Jennifer Kupcho and Maria Fassi went head to head over the last nine holes, Kupcho battling a severe migraine but somehow finding the resources to be five under for her last six holes and snare victory. The effervescent Fassi, displaying great sportsmanship and joie de vivre, certainly gives the lie to the old saying that no one remembers who is second. We were treated to fabulous skills by these two young women who now both play professionally on the LPGA. I wonder if they realise just how much they have inspired young amateurs who dream of following in their wake? I’m sure in the next decade or so we’ll hear female champions citing that round of golf as their first exposure to the game.Augusta National may have been expecting a slow burn of an event with the necessity of a few years of play under their belts before the tournament would grow into itself. Well, they had a firecracker of a debut and, handled correctly and in that inimitable ANGC way, the trend could well be steeply upward as opposed to gradual.
To round off this week’s musings on women in the game, I’d like to say how pleased I was to see Michelle Wie West take to the competitive fairways in the Kia Classic for the first time since she became a mum. Patricia and I first saw her as a precocious 14-year old in the Curtis Cup at Formby in 2004. I had rarely seen a female strike a golf ball as she did and part of me can scarcely believe that seventeen years later she has only a lone major to her name. Copious injuries alongside growing up in a goldfish bowl with your every move dissected does not make for an easy life and it is impressive how Michelle has always behaved with poise and grace when under fire. She admitted that when she knew she was going to have a daughter a new goal began to form in her mind.“That’s when I started to think, ‘You know, I kind of want to (play again). I want to show (my daughter) in real time that I can, that I play golf’. It’s one thing to have her watch YouTube videos. It’s another thing to have her watch me with her own eyes. Seeing me go out there, work at it hard, and try to lead by example.
“That moment that Tiger had with Charlie [in the PNC Championship], that is the first thing that popped into my mind. That’s been a huge motivation and that’s been a new dream of mine.”
Welcome back, Michelle. Who needs a sackload of majors to be a winner?