JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — In May 2020, when Danielle Kang learned that qualifying for the Olympic golf tournament had been extended 15 months due to COVID-19, she panicked. And then she cried. At that point, she had mathematically secured her spot to play in Tokyo, and the extension in essence had snatched her dream away from her. It meant so much to her that the idea that she could achieve what she called her “life goal,” have it taken from her and then fail to achieve it again was devastating … even though it was only a hypothetical.
Kang’s story has a happy ending. She played on when the LPGA resumed its season last summer and has secured her spot in Tokyo yet again. And it’s her passion for the event, and the passion of her fellow pros, that seems so out of place if your only experience with the confluence of golf and the Olympics has come from the men’s side.
One of the biggest post-U.S. Open stories is the ongoing trickle of men who are choosing not to compete in the Olympics after men’s qualifying closed on Sunday. Dustin Johnson and Adam Scott took their names out of the running early in 2021, but recently Tokyo has lost Louis Oosthuizen, Tyrrell Hatton, Sergio Garcia and Martin Kaymer. As John Feinstein wrote in March, even those who end up making the trip might not necessarily be over the moon about it, and the Olympics don’t register on the same level as a major in golf. With a month and a day left before the start of the Games, we probably haven’t seen the end of the exodus.
Which makes it at least a little strange that at Atlanta Athletic Club, the site of this week’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, not only are the women in qualifying position excited to play in the Olympics, but the race for the final spots—women’s qualifying ends on Sunday—is one of the most compelling narratives of the week.
The main drama centers on the U.S. and South Korea contingents. Both countries are eligible for four spots in the Olympic field since they have at least that many players ranked inside the top 15 of the Rolex Rankings. In each case, the top three are secure: Jin Young Ko, Inbee Park and Sei Young Kim for Korea; and Nelly Korda, Danielle Kang and Lexi Thompson for the U.S. (Thompson loves the Olympics so much that after competing in Rio, she got a tattoo of the Olympic rings.) It’s the fourth spot where the intrigue is brewing—on the Korean side, Hyo-Joo Kim is attempting to hold off a number of her compatriots, while Jessica Korda has to defend her spot against American challengers like Ally Ewing, Jennifer Kupcho and Austin Ernst.
On Tuesday, when a number of the players in qualifying position spoke to the media, there was a marked contrast in how the Olympics were discussed. While the conversation on among the men has been laced with hesitancy, for the women, there is unabashed excitement.
“To be able to achieve what I wanted to achieve, being on the Olympic team for the second time of my career, it has been a very big goal of my career,” said Inbee Park, the 2016 gold medalist. “I know a lot of Korean girls, I think it’s one of their most wanted goals to be on the team. For me as well, I’ve achieved a lot in golf, won a lot of majors, won a lot of tournaments, but winning the gold medal was something really different.”
Ko, ranked No. 1 in the Rolex Rankings, brightened up instantly at the very end of her press conference when the topic of the Olympics came up.
“Yes!” she chirped, practically hopping with energy. “It’s really tough to get to the Tokyo Olympics, especially the Korean team, because everyone knows Korean players playing every week are really good. Everyone is like, perfect players. So it was hard to get in there, but I made it. I’m so happy.”
Kim, who has secured her spot as the third player from Korea, said that making the Olympics and representing her country was her “biggest wish.” Meanwhile, the Korda sisters stressed that they were focused on this week, but each lamented the fact that their parents couldn’t come along to enjoy the experience in Tokyo if they were to both make the U.S. team.
It was Kang, though, who was the most effusive about the reality of playing at the Olympics.
“I can’t speak for what the Olympics mean for a lot of people, but for me it’s everything,” she said. “Ever since I trained Tae Kwon Do to be an Olympian, the Olympics have been my dream … it’s something I’ve wanted to achieve all my life.”
When asked how to explain the difference in perspective between the men and women, Kang declined to speculate. Park could only point to the scheduling issues inherent to the men’s game (the Open Championship is being played two weeks before and the FedEx Cup Playoffs begin three weeks after).
Perhaps it’s that, and perhaps the contrast in outlook goes deeper. In Atlanta, it was clear that the women appreciate and respect the history and stature of the Olympics, and are filled with excitement at the prospect of competing, for reasons that simply haven’t resonated with the men. For all the negative press surrounding golf in Tokyo, the Olympic spirit still exists if you know where to look.