Tuesday, September 28News That Matters

For Korea’s Golfers Eyeing the Olympics, More Than Four Is a Crowd

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. — So Yeon Ryu is a two-time major winner and a former world No. 1 who entered this week’s ANA Inspiration, the first L.P.G.A. major of the year, as a top 20 player. Ryu’s credentials for the Tokyo Olympics this summer are solid gold.

Her passport is her problem.

Ryu is from South Korea, where champion women golfers are an abundant natural resource. With three months until the team rosters for the delayed Summer Games in Tokyo are finalized, Ryu is No. 16 in the world but No. 7 in her homeland.

The Olympic qualification standards dictate that every player in the top 15 is eligible to compete but that no country can have more than four representatives in the 60-player field. Led by Jin Young Ko, Koreans hold the top three spots.

“I don’t know that there’s a harder team in sport to make right now,” said Mike Whan, the departing L.P.G.A. commissioner.

In 2016, when golf returned to the Olympics as a medal sport for the first time since 1904, Ryu missed a berth on the South Korean team despite a top-12 world ranking.

“It’s tougher to make the team from my country than to win the gold medal,” said Ryu, who opened with an even-par 72 Thursday at Mission Hills. Patty Tavatanakit of Thailand shot a six-under-par 66 to lead the field.

South Korean champions have been plentiful over the past decade, capturing 23 of the 47 L.P.G.A. majors contested. They occupy 14 of the top 35 spots in the world rankings. For players desiring to distinguish themselves, making the Olympic team is a priority.

“So many players are playing so well from Korea that I want to say people back home are less appreciative to see what we’re doing on the tour,” said Ryu, 30, whose major titles came at the 2011 United States Women’s Open and the 2017 ANA Inspiration, both in playoffs. “They’re more keen to see the Olympics because they know it’s really, really tough to make the team.”

Inbee Park, Ryu’s best friend and compatriot, won the women’s competition at the Rio Olympics, by five strokes over New Zealand’s Lydia Ko, then the top-ranked player. With the country’s team members all so highly ranked, Korean officials were confident of at least one medal in the women’s competition. Park overcame a wrist injury that had slowed her progress all year and delivered on the expectations.

No stranger to the spotlight, she took the golf world on a thrilling ride in 2013 when she won the first three majors in a bid to become the first professional, male or female, to win four in the same year. But never, Park said, had she felt more pressure. After arriving in Brazil, Park absorbed the sense of urgency radiated by the archers, the swimmers, the taekwondo athletes and the handball players representing Korea who have one chance every four years to craft their legacies.

“You get so much attention from the people and the country and from everyone pretty much,” Park, now 32 and a seven-time major champion, said this week. “I think it’s double, triple, probably 10 times more pressure than I ever felt in a major championship.”

Whan said the telecast of Park’s final round drew a 27.1 rating in South Korea. To put that in context, he said, Park’s unsuccessful bid for history at the 2013 Women’s British Open — she finished 14 strokes behind the winner, Stacy Lewis — got an 8, which was roughly the same as the rating for Tiger Woods’s victorious final round at the 2019 Masters.

“So imagine Tiger at Augusta times three,” Whan said. “She went from being a really noteworthy golfer to being one of the most famous people in Korea in one weekend.”

Ryu didn’t plan to watch any of the 2016 Olympics coverage. “I was so close to making the team that it definitely hurt for me,” Ryu said. “I wanted to avoid it as much as I can.”

She added, “But when you know your best friend is rocking it in Rio, you have to watch.”

Ryu was glad she saw Park clinch the gold. She credits Park’s performance in the Olympics with her own victory at Mission Hills and ascent to No. 1 the following year.

“Before Rio I was maybe so afraid, ‘What is going to happen if I miss the Olympics?’” Ryu said. “So I almost just wanted to believe winning a major is better than the Olympics.”

She added: “After Inbee won the gold medal, I was definitely jealous — not of her but because I felt she did something that was big for the whole golf industry. Maybe that motivation really helped me to play well in 2017.”

In 2018, South Korea hosted the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. In a nod to her new stature, Park was chosen as one of the final torch bearers. As she ran with the flame into the Olympic Stadium, slowly to avoid tripping in conditions so cold she could hardly feel her feet, her friend Ryu sat awe-struck in the crowd of 35,000.

After being so near the top 10 and still so far from qualifying for the 2016 Olympics, Ryu recognized it might be her only chance to experience an Olympics up close.