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 possibility 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, 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 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. The American dropped 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 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 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, 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.”
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.