Black Friday Sale: Get 75% off a digital subscription

South Koreans hope to build national morale at International Crown

The Baltimore Sun

For the eight teams playing in the LPGA's inaugural International Crown at Caves Valley Golf Club in Owings Mills, the event is about competition, cameraderie and representing a country.

For the four players from South Korea, it's also about lifting a country in mourning after a ferry accident that took the lives of more than 300 — most of them high school students — after the MV Sewol capsized and sank in April.

"I know the Korean people are expecting us to win, but yeah, it's a tough time back in my country right now," Inbee Park said Wednesday. "A lot of sad things happened this year, including the ferry disaster. ...

"A lot of people are in a really little bit of depression, so we really need some kind of hope for my people back in my country, and I think this week could be a big hope for them."

Park, the formerly the world's No. 1 ranked women's player, said a victory this week could be similar to when South Korean Se Ri Pak beat Jenny Chuasiriporn, an amateur from Timonium, in the 1998 U.S. Women's Open in Kohler, Wisc.

At that time, South Korea was in the throes of a financial crisis that led to the International Monetary Fund contributing $40 million to stabilize the currency in several Asian countries.

"Just like we did in 1998, when we were in [crisis], this week could make a difference in my country," Park said. "So we're going to play our best and try to bring the trophy home."

Teammate So Yeon Ryu said Tuesday that because of the tragedy, "we really want to win this tournament and we want to give a really great energy to all the Koreans. This tournament feels bigger than the Olympic games."

Seeded second behind the United States, South Korea will take on Australia in Thursday's opening matches. The recent slide by several Koreans in the Rolex World Rankings is also serving as motivation for this event.

"This year obviously the American players are playing very well and obviously it hasn't been like the last couple of years," said Park, now ranked third in the world behind Stacy Lewis of the U.S. and teenage sensation Lydio Ko of New Zealand.

"We definitely feel the pressure and we definitely feel like we have to step it up a little bit this year and try to change some kind of rhythm to it. I think this week is something that can really change it."

Sister act

Since the four Americans are the only players to have represented their country in a team event as pros, many of the other golfers might take some time adjusting to the format when the first of three days of four-ball (everyone plays all their shots) begins Thursday.

But Moriya Jutanugarn and Ariya Jutanugarn, teenage sisters from Thailand who will face Azahara Munoz and Beatrice Recari of Spain in the first match Thursday morning, might have an advantage over even the U.S. players.

"We played together all the time when we were young," said Moriya, 19 and in her second year on the LPGA tour.

Ariya, 18, was considered one of the game's rising stars when she nearly won an LPGA event in Thailand last year, blowing a three-shot lead to Park on the final hole.

After later winning a European tour event, Ariya Jutanugarn badly injured her shoulder at the LPGA Championship when she fell off an elevated tee box during a practice round as she squirted a water bottle at her big sister.

"It's pretty hard after I [had] surgery," she said. "It's pretty hard to come back to play golf, because I was out for six or seven months and [it] took me a long time to come back and get confident."

Ariya said her injury is "like 90 percent healed". Thailand is seeded fourth and some consider it a darkhorse to upset either the U.S. or South Korea for the trophy.

"I think we're really confident with all my teammates," Ariya said. "We are really friendly and we just hang out together all the time. We are pretty close."

Unfamiliar role

At 39, Karrie Webb is the oldest player among the 32 competing in the International Crown. With 41 LPGA victories, including seven majors, the Hall of Famer from Australia is also the most accomplished.

But she is in uncharted territory, being part of a team event for the first time as a professional as well as being on a team that is seeded seventh and considered one of the underdogs.

"I think over my career I've always been asked if I wanted to play in a Presidents Cup or Solheim Cup format," Webb said Wednesday. "This is an even better format. For me to be able to wear our Australian colors and play under the Australian flag is very special."

As for being the seventh-seed, Webb said, "I think for us we'll have to play sneaky underdogs."

Webb got a taste of a team event when she went to cheer on close friends Beth Daniel and Meg Mallon when they captained Solheim Cup teams, in 2009 and 2013. (The Solheim Cup features the United States facing a team of Europeans.)

"It probably made me want to play more than be a cart driver and look after the Americans and get Dairy Queen smoothies," Webb joked. "The atmosphere is different than any that we play as individuals."

Webb, who will play with 18-year-old amateur Minjee Lee against I.K. Kim and Na Yeon Choi of South Korea on Thursday, said the strategy will be different despite the fact that in fourball matches there is no alternate shot.

"I think there's a little bit more to best ball [four ball] than you might think," Webb said. "You are just playing your own game and trying to give your team as many opportunities to make birdies as possible. But there are strategies to trying to be there first player to make birdie on a hole or things like that."

Webb is looking forward to playing with Lee, the top amateur in the world. Webb has known Lee since she started attending a series of junior golf clinics in Australia.

That was one of the reasons they decided to play together.

"It's a pretty cool experience that a couple of years ago she was coming to stay with me at the U.S. Open and now she's ready for the world stage," Webb said.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun