RIO DE JANEIRO — Inbee Park’s first victory of the season might just be the biggest of her career — a gold medal in women’s golf.
Park made three straight birdies early in the final round Saturday to build a big lead, never let anyone closer than three shots the rest of the way and closed with a 5-under 66 for a five-shot victory at Olympic Golf Course.
Lydia Ko of New Zealand didn’t stand a chance, and neither did anyone else.
“This is definitely one of the special moments in my golfing career and in my whole life,” Park said. “It feels great. It’s just really all I’ve wanted.”
Ko, the No. 1 player in women’s golf who started the final round two shots behind, at least made an 8-foot birdie putt on the final hole for a 69 to claim the silver. Shanshan Feng of China shot 69 and took the bronze.
A South Korean on top of the podium was not a surprise. Not many would have expected it to be Park.
She has played poorly all year because of ligament damage in her left thumb, leading to speculation she was going to retire. Park had not faced top competition in two months and missed the last two majors on the LPGA Tour to prepare for the Olympics. But when she missed the cut in a Korean LPGA earlier this month, the 28-year-old South Korean heard chatter that she should give up her spot to another player in better form.
Instead, she reminded those in her golf-passionate country why she ranks among the best.
“I had a lot of attention coming into this week,” Park said. “There was a little bit of confusion from me whether I can perform well this week or not, because I really haven’t performed well this year with the injury. Being able to overcome injury this week and being able to play good, I’ve worked really hard for this week and hard work really paid off.”
Park already has seven majors, including the career Grand Slam, and earlier this year she became the youngest in history to qualify for the LPGA Hall of Fame. Now she has the first gold medal awarded in women’s golf since 1900.
Stacy Lewis had a chance at a medal for the Americans with birdies on the 16th and 17th holes. She missed her 15-foot birdie putt on the final hole and shot 66, finishing one shot out of the bronze.
Maria Verchenova of Russia posted the lowest score, a 62 that featured the third hole-in-one of the tournament.
This final round, however, was all about Park.
South Korea has been the dominant nation in women’s golf, and Park brought home the biggest prize. Fans dressed in red shirts held up South Korean flags for her to see behind every green and on the way to every tee. Park kept her composure, even as she was making one birdie after another to demoralize Ko and anyone else trying to challenge her.
Ko’s best chance was around the turn. She made her first birdie on the seventh hole to cut the lead to five shots, and then hit a tee shot about 12 feet short of the flag at the par-3 eighth. Park answered with a shot into 3 feet for another birdie. Ko also missed a 12-foot birdie putt on the 10th when Park, who had driven into the water, still had about 5 feet to make bogey. Ko missed and Park made. It was like that all day.
Park never cracked. When she tapped in from 2 feet for par on the final hole, she raised her arms and tilted her head to a cloudy sky, and moments later was beaming as she sang to her national anthem.
She finished at 16-under 268, the same score with which Justin Rose won the gold medal last Sunday in men’s golf.
“Coming back from an injury and not playing and not being competitive, that’s a hard thing to do,” Lewis said. “And the way she won this week was very impressive.”