INCHEON, SOUTH KOREA | Whew, what a relief. They didn’t say it out loud but that was the reaction of the four South Korean players after they won both their opening four-ball matches against Chinese Taipei at the UL International Crown.
Expectations have been so extreme leading into this event that, at times, it seemed as if anything less than 9-and-8 victories all week would be considered a disappointment by many of the fans who flooded the Jack Nicklaus Golf Club Korea to see the home team. When So Yeon Ryu cozied a birdie putt to within a few inches on the last hole to ensure a sweep for the South Koreans, you could see their shoulders fall. Not joy. Reprieve.
The victory capped a surprisingly subdued day for these biannual matches. For starters, the anticipated crowds didn’t make it out as early as expected. Australians Sarah Jane Smith and Minjee Lee teed off first against England’s Charley Hull and Georgia Hall to a crowd that numbered in the dozens. And that was being generous. When God Save the Queen played during the flag-waving ceremony, there were six people in the grandstands behind the first tee who were not volunteers or staff members. That number steadily increased as the morning went on but the massive hordes didn’t make it out until after lunch and almost all of them hoofed it around with two groups: Sung Hyun Park and I.K. Kim versus Candie Kung and Phoebe Yao (a match the South Koreans won, 1 up) and Ryu and In Gee Chun versus Teresa Lu and Wei-Ling Hsu (a 2-up victory).
“I’m glad that I looked like I was enjoying myself because I was actually very nervous,” Chun said of her experience on the first tee. “So Yeon tried to help me relax and I think going to the first hole I was able to laugh a little bit. Birdieing the first hole really gave me a boost. But I was really nervous. I tried to turn that tension into something positive for our team.”
All four members of the Republic of Korea team are major champions and three of the four, including Chun, have won two majors. But this is different. Rarely has a country expected so much from four young sportswomen.
Even Michelle Wie, still one of the biggest draws in the women’s game, couldn’t garner more than a smattering of people, whereas Park, in the group behind Wie, had somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000 to 5,000 spectators migrating around the back nine with her.
— UL Intl Crown (@ULIntlCrown) October 4, 2018
Park is the biggest draw in her home country and it’s not really close. Clad in black and bling, her fans advertise their admiration for Park with everything from glittery logos to mouse ears. But even Park couldn’t get the crowd revved until well into the back nine. After a birdie at the first hole, she had four bogeys on the front and shot 39. Kim kept the team in the match until her partner woke up.
“I think that I was the most nervous and anxious out of the four,” Park said. “I thought my heart was going to burst. On the first hole, I had a birdie putt that was less than one meter but of course I pulled it. In general I get pretty nervous with the fans but with this competition, I think I was extra nervous.”
At No. 14, a drivable par-4 adjacent to the largest corporate hospitality structure in the history of women’s golf, Park’s nerves finally calmed. She blasted driver onto the middle of the green, 21 feet from the hole. When that eagle putt went in, the cheers were the loudest of the year and went on for a full minute.
“It was a great feeling to make that eagle putt,” she said afterward. “It gave me a lot of confidence for the rest of the match.”
So far, the Jack Nicklaus Golf Club isn’t yielding a lot of birdies, which led to the lack of energy. Smith led the field with five birdies all day. Compare that to the last Solheim Cup, where, in a Saturday four-ball session, Annika Sörenstam’s European team had 36 birdies and an eagle and lost three of the four matches.
But whether holes were won with birdies, eagles, pars or bogeys, the South Koreans were simply glad to get this one done.