World No. 1 Lydia Ko chose the perfect moment to register the first hole-in-one of her life today – and that sweetest of seven iron shots could potentially lead her to the promised land of Olympic glory in Rio de Janeiro.
Standing in her way is the indomitable figure of the Republic of Korea’s Inbee Park, the most decorated major champion in the field, who held firm in blustery conditions to move two strokes clear in the race to capture the first women’s Olympic gold since 1900.
With the prospect of the winds increasing in intensity – and the possiblity of thunderstorms tomorrow afternoon – the final round will now be played off the first and tenth tees at 07.00 with the leaders teeing off at 08.44 in order to avoid disruption to a potentially thrilling climax.
Meanwhile Ko (below), the 19-year-old New Zealander who has taken the golfing world by storm in three trophy-laden years as a professional, defied gusty, swirling winds at Reserva de Marapendi Golf Course to blaze a trail through the elite women’s field and into serious medal contention.
At the end of a challenging day, which witnessed several changes at the top of a powerful leaderboard, Ko found herself in a tie for second place after a third round of 65 which featured a dazzling outward nine holes of 29 – and the thrill of that seven-iron ace from 140 yards.
Park, a seven-time major winner, added a third round 70 for a total of 202 to double her overnight lead to two shots while Ko’s 54-hole total of 204, nine under par, send her hurtling from 21st to second place alongside Gerina Piller (below). The American spilled a shot at the 18th but managed to sign for a three under par 68 and total of 204 while China’s Shanshan Feng matched that 68 to close in on the leading pack on 205.
The capricious nature of the afternoon gusts damaged a number of medal prospects, with Piller’s compatriot, Stacy Lewis, shooting a 76 to slip back from second place into a tie for eighth. Brooke Henderson of Canada, who won the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship earlier this season, was only one shot better while Charley Hull’s attempt to emulate Justin Rose’s men’s gold medal for Great Britain also suffered a setback as she took 74.
The timing of Ko’s first hole-in-one could not be more propitious, with the women’s Olympic competition reaching a potentially thrilling climax. The two Olympic events have now witnessed four aces, with two in the men’s contest and two in one day for the women, with Ko matching the feat of China’s Xi Yu Lin earlier in the same day.
The Kiwi said: “This is the first one in a practice round and tournaments, all included. I almost didn’t know how to react, because it is your first one, and the wind is blowing and I haven’t had the best of luck when it comes to hole‑in‑ones. I would have loved to like done a dance or jumped up‑and‑down, but in that situation, I think I was almost trying to cry, and then realised I had 11 more holes to play.
“It’s really cool. It just puts the cherry on top. This week is about having fun and this experience, being an Olympian and competing in the Olympics, and to have my first hole-in-one, is something that I’ll never forget.”
The medal chase promises to be exciting with Park, Ko and Piller at the head of affairs, and the experienced Korean admitted: It was very challenging (in the) conditions. I feel like I really struggled out there. My putting was really, really good today, six birdies out in those conditions is phenomenal. I’m very happy with where I’m positioned right now.”
In spite of the uncertainty over her fitness due to a long-term thumb injury, Park has belief in her ability to strike gold. She added: “Somewhere in my heart, after I made the decision to play this week, I really believed in myself that I can do it. If I didn’t have a trust in myself, I wouldn’t be playing this week.”
Feng (above), who moved into podium contention, confirmed that the wind had caused considerable difficulties. She explained: “The wind stayed in the same direction but it was kind of gusty at some points. It was hard out there, because even for me – and I’m not a short hitter – I used 3‑wood into the greens on three par 4s, and that’s not very normal. It was really tough. You just need to stay patient the whole day, and I think I did.”
Hull still believes she is playing well enough to win. She said: “I scrambled quite well. I’m happy with the position that I’m in. And I’m only in tied fifth position and that’s nothing going into tomorrow. Anything can happen on a Sunday in a major – or in this case, the Olympics.”
Meanwhile the first round leader Ariya Jutanugarn of Thailand, the most recent major champion in women’s golf, was forced to retire after 13 holes due to a knee injury.
Quotes of the Day – Round 3
Inbee Park 202 (66, 66, 70): “I think having big names on the leaderboard can make everything a lot more exciting and that can help women’s golf grow a lot bigger. I’m very happy what we are showing in the Olympic golf right now. It’s really exciting for everyone. Really exciting for me. Really exciting for all the other players that are competing. Exciting for all the people who are watching. Yeah, it’s a great scenario.”
Lydia Ko 204 (69, 70, 65): “This week has been great. Even without considering today, I think just this experience, being here, representing New Zealand, seeing some of the other athletes from New Zealand, I think that is an inspiration, and I think that’s what the Olympics is about. Obviously the results and the medals are great, but at the end of the day, it’s about the world’s best athletes together and having a great time and at the end, having to compete to stand on the podium.”
Gerina Piller 204 (69, 67, 68): “I would say it’s one of the biggest (rounds of her life), yes. Playing the Solheim Cup is definitely dear to my heart and trying to win that for the country. But I’ve never played in the final round of an Olympics before competing for a medal. It’s going to be pretty special. I’m going to soak it in all in, take it all in, and no matter what the outcome, I’m proud to be American.”
Shanshan Feng 205 (70, 67. 68): “Back in China, normally we are only on golf channels, but this time people can see us on any (television) channels. I think that’s a great chance to let the Chinese know how good the Chinese players are, and hopefully they can just fall in love with the sport and join this sport.”
Paula Reto 209 (74, 67, 68): “It (Olympic Games) feels awesome. It’s almost like you’ve got something above some people. Just the experience, it’s something you can’t buy. It’s something you have to earn. We love the golf course. It’s great. For us to play for the first time in a competition since it’s been built – that’s awesome.”
Ariya Jutanugarn (WD due to knee injury): “Yeah, very disappointed, because it’s the Olympics, and I told my caddie that I want to finish like four days. I don’t care how many over I’m going to be, but I’m thinking about my career.”