South Korean Women’s Golf Best Player Aims for the 2020 Olympics

Nicholas Kim, March 5, 2018, 9:14 a.m.

The best player on the South Korean women's golf tour last season is now eyeing the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics. Lee Jeong-eun, the 2017 Korea LPGA (KLPGA) Tour Player of the Year, said on Monday that making the Olympic team is her "ultimate goal." "If I have a chance to compete on the U.S. LPGA Tour, then I'll try to take it a step further and get to the Olympics," Lee said after signing an endorsement deal with Daebang Construction in Seoul.

Lee dominated the domestic circuit last year, winning a tour-best four times while also leading all players in money and scoring average. She parlayed that into a three-year deal with Daebang. Though financial terms weren't disclosed at the signing ceremony on Monday, industry sources say Lee will make 800 million won (US$740,800) in guaranteed fees, and the company will also offer incentives based on Lee's performance.

The 21-year-old faces an uphill climb to make the Olympic team, given a deep pool of talent in South Korean women's golf. For the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Games, the top-15 players on the world rankings were eligible, with a maximum of four players from a single nation. Beyond the top 15, up to two players from each country that didn't already have two or more players inside the top 15 could participate.

If the qualification rules don't change for Tokyo 2020, then Lee, world No. 25, will have to leapfrog several players. In the current world rankings, there are six players inside the top 15 and five more South Koreans between No. 15 and No. 24.

But with more than two years left until the Olympics, Lee will take things slowly. First, she'll try to get into as many LPGA events as she can, which will help her pick up some valuable world ranking points and also get her closer to full-time LPGA membership.

"I plan to enter about five LPGA tournaments this year," said Lee, whose first U.S. appearance will be at the season's first major, the ANA Inspiration, at the end of March.

"And if I play well in those, then it will open up more opportunities," Lee added.

An LPGA win grants nonmembers full privileges for the following year. Ko Jin-young, the 2016 KLPGA Player of the Year, has taken that path to the LPGA Tour for 2018. She won the LPGA KEB HanaBank Championship in South Korea last October as a nonmember and is now a leading Rookie of the Year contender, having already won once and posted two other top-10 finishes in her first three starts.

But Lee doesn't actually have to win an LPGA event to earn her tour card for 2019. If she makes enough money as a nonmember to rank inside the top 40 on the money list by season's end, Lee can still get her LPGA membership. Park Sung-hyun, the 2016 KLPGA money winner, earned her LPGA eligibility via that route after placing in the top 10 four times in seven starts as a nonmember in 2016, netting her enough money to rank 22nd on the money list that year. Park went on to win the LPGA Rookie of the Year award and to share the Player of the Year honor with fellow South Korean Ryu So-yeon.

Lee is in for a busy season split between South Korea and the U.S., and she said she didn't seek to change much during her offseason training. "I tried to maintain my swing and tempo from last year," she said. "My focus was on improving my short game and shots in the wind."

Lee will make her KLPGA season debut this weekend at the Korea Investment & Securities Championship at Twin Doves Golf Club in Vietnam. She said her goal on the KLPGA Tour in 2018 is "to defend at least one of the four titles that I won last year."

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