What to watch at Women's Golf Competition
The field will be deep at the Rio Olympics this week when the race for gold begins
August 16, 2016
By Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM
- Su-Hyun Oh and Minjee Lee of Australia pose together during a practice round in Rio. (Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO – Time for the women to step into the spotlight at the Olympic golf course. Here are three key storylines going into Wednesday’s first round, along with a few other three-point tidbits to get you fully prepped. Olympic medals – the first for women golfers in 116 years – are awarded on Saturday.
THREE BIG STORIES
IS LYDIA THE FAVORITE?Lydia Ko of New Zealand poses with a stuffed Olympic mascot during a practice round. (Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
The dominant force on the LPGA Tour, top-ranked Lydia Ko has four wins and seven other top-10s in 16 starts this season. You know she’s just 19 years old, right? The New Zealander goes into each tournament now as one of the favorites, so theoretically the Olympics wouldn’t be any different.
Plus, she’s already had a close encounter with a gold medal, having her picture taken with Justin Rose following his win Sunday on the men’s side. “Hopefully his vibes came off to me,” Ko said.
But it may not be the slam dunk that you think. She comes off her worst finish of the year, a tie for 40th at the Women’s British Open that ended her string of five consecutive top-3 finishes in majors.
The field is deep – much deeper than the men, if you go strictly on world rankings. Nine of the world’s top 10 are here. Plus, the LPGA Tour’s current hottest golfer is Thailand’s Ariya Jutanugarn, who has four wins since May, including the Women’s British.
And the course may not fit Ko’s game. She’s the best putter on the LPGA Tour, and she has superior shot-making skills, but her length – she ranks 118th in driving distance – may be an issue, even though the course is not overly long by LPGA standards at 6,245 yards.
“I don’t think the golf course is a great fit for her,” said Golf Channel’s Notah Begay. “You saw Thomas Pieters, Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson (in contention), who were three of the longer players in the field on the men’s side. So I think there is a propensity for length to have a bit of an advantage.”
Begay also suggested the Olympic Course’s slower greens reduce Ko’s advantage with the putter. He said that mediocre putters may be better off because they can put more pace on their putts without fear of severe consequences.
“She still is going to be one of the favorites,” Begay said, “but I think there will be a couple of other players that you’re going to have to look at who have a tendency to be a little longer off the tee.”
PRESSURE ON THE KOREANSInbee Park of Korea watches a tee shot during a practice round at the Olympic Golf Course. (Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Grabbing a spot on the Korean women’s golf team might very well be more difficult than grabbing a podium spot on Saturday. After all, nine Koreans are inside the top 20 of the Rolex Rankings. Consider that the 10th-ranked women’s player in the world, Ha-Na Jang, was not good enough to qualify for the maximum four spots claimed by Korea this week. She merely won two of the first five LPGA events this season but is the only player among the world’s top 10 not here this week.
It wasn’t by choice.
Golf Channel’s Jerry Foltz, in fact, considers Korean women’s golf the “hardest team to make in all of the Olympics, not just in golf.”
A podium sweep may be too much to ask, but the Koreans certainly expect to medal.
That brings us to Inbee Park. The top-ranked Korean woman has been plagued by a nagging left thumb injury that prevented her from playing in the U.S. and British Opens. She played in the Women’s PGA in June but shot a 79 in the second round and missed the cut.
Part of the reason she opted not to push through the injury was in order to heal for the Olympics, but whether she’s at 100 percent is tough to say. If she doesn’t perform, there could be criticism for not stepping aside for one of the other strong Korean players.
FOLLOWING THE MENA number of women players were able to get a close look at the course when the men competed. (Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)
Back-to-back tournaments for the men and women on the same course is not a new concept. In 2014, the men’s U.S. Open was played the week before the Women’s Open, with both events at Pinehurst No. 2. Fears that the course would be chopped up and not have enough recovery time between events proved unfounded.
“At Pinehurst, we realized, there were no divots,” Ko said. “I can’t recall once where I was even close to where the guys were.”
It shouldn’t be an issue this week. Unlike the 156-player U.S. Open, there are just 60 players for each of the Olympic events. Plus, architect Gil Hanse set up the course so men and women would be using the same clubs into holes. It’s doubtful shots that the women hit will end up in the same spot as the men.
“I’m pretty sure I do not hit a 9-iron at the same place Bubba Watson is hitting a 9-iron,” Ko said. “I don’t think those things are going to worry us. It’s pretty firm out there.”
If there’s any concern at all, it’s having one less full practice day, since the tournament begins on Wednesday (it cannot end on Sunday, which is the day of the Closing Ceremony. Thus, everything was moved up one day). Most of the contenders came in early to have a look, and managed to get significant practice time in the afternoons after the final men’s groups teed off.
Plus, some players may benefit from the course knowledge gathered by their countrymen. For instance, Spaniard Azahara Munoz said she spoke with Sergio Garcia and Rafa Cabrera Bello about the course but didn’t get “super specific because for everybody the course is different.”
Based on last week, the Olympic course favors the ball-striker. Henrik Stenson has ranked at the top in greens in regulation in three of the past four years, and Justin Rose also led the TOUR in that category in 2012. Last week, he led the field in greens hit en route to winning gold.
“If we learned anything from the men playing this golf course, it’s not a putter’s golf course, it’s a ball-striker’s golf course,” said Foltz.
THREE PODIUM PICKS
Gold: Ariya Jutanugarn (Thailand). She’s in form. She hits it long. She hits a lot of greens. And she’s a solid putter. If she can avoid trouble off the tee, hard to imagine she won’t be a factor on the back nine Sunday.
Silver: Sei Young Kim (Korea). Like Jutanugarn, she’s a big hitter. Unlike Jutanugarn, she’s been off-form in her last three starts. But if she gets in a playoff, she’s deadly -- 3-0 in playoffs, winning each with birdie or better.
Bronze: Lydia Ko (New Zealand). Given what she’s done since June, that British Open finish seems like an aberration rather than the start of a trend. Ko’s just too consistent to keep off the podium.
THREE GROUPS TO WATCH
Brooke Henderson (Canada), Suzann Pettersen (Norway), Lexi Thompson (USA). The veteran Pettersen has won more LPGA events (15) than Henderson and Thompson combined, but the younger two have won recently. No one on the LPGA Tour hits it farther than Thompson, the driving distance leader. Tee times: Rd. 1 – 9:14 a.m.; Rd. 2 – 11:09 a.m.
Ariya Jutanugarn (Thailand), Stacy Lewis (USA), Sei Young Kim (Korea)
The powerhouse threesome if you go by the Rolex Rankings, with Jutanugarn ranked No. 2, Lewis No. 4 and Kim No. 6. Lewis will probably find herself 20 or so yards behind the other two off the tee. Tee times: Rd. 1 – 10:58 a.m.; Rd. 2 – 9:03 a.m.
Lydia Ko (New Zealand), Anna Nordqvist (Sweden), Charley Hull (Great Britain)
Hmmm, a Swede and a Brit battling it out at the Olympic golf course. Seems like we’ve seen this before. Certainly, Hull will get inspiration from Justin Rose, and Nordqvist from Henrik Stenson. They may need more than that to outplay Ko. Tee times: Rd. 1 – 11:09 a.m.; Rd. 2 – 9:14 a.m.
THREE QUICK HITSLexi Thompson has some insight into the course after watching the men's competition. (Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
AMERICA’S CHANCES. Three players are in the field this week, making the U.S. the only other country besides Korea to have more than two. Lexi Thompson is the only one to win on the LPGA Tour this season, but Stacy Lewis and Gerina Piller have been very consistent, with eight top 10s each. All three Americans rank among the top six on tour in greens in regulation, which could pay huge dividends on a ball-striker’s course such as this.
So far, none of the Americans have discussed a podium sweep, but each has the talent to follow Matt Kuchar’s lead. “Lewis would be on my short list of favorites for a gold medal,” said the Golf Channel’s Foltz, “but if it’s just one medal, I think Stacy Lewis is going to find a place on that podium somehow.”
CRAZY CANADIAN. Brooke Henderson played nine consecutive events on the LPGA Tour, then had another two-day event after that before taking the weekend off to prepare for the Women’s British Open. She won twice during that span, including the Women’s PGA Championship; at age 18, she became the tournament’ s youngest winner. She doesn’t think the heavy work load is terribly taxing, and she’s had a couple of weeks off before this week’s event.
“A lot of people thought I was crazy playing that many weeks in a row, but that’s what I like to do,” Henderson said. “I like to compete and I like to play in tournaments. If I went home, I was just going to practice anyways, so why not just test myself?”
BRAZIL OFF FIRST. Just like in the men’s competition, a Brazilian will hit the opening tee shot Thursday to start the women’s tournament. The honor belongs to 35-year-old Miriam Nagl, who didn’t learn the game in her native country, but in Berlin after her family moved to Germany when she was 10. She was born in Curitiba, the most-southern state in Brazil, and spent time there before traveling to Rio for the Games.
“It’s actually overcoming a little bit right now,” Nagl said when first hearing she would open the women’s event. “Because I was obviously born here and lived here till I was 10, so this is very special.”