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A Big Stage for Golf Animates Female Players Around the Globe

Nhung Tang
Photo: Nhung Tang (

It was no surprise that Inbee Park of South Korea, Lydia Ko of New Zealand and Shanshan Feng of China were the gold, silver and bronze medalists at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro this month. All three have been winners on the L.P.G.A. Tour.

But at the other end of the spectrum on the Olympic golf stage — designed as much for global inclusion as for distinguishing elite women’s champions — were winners of another sort: professional and some amateur players who represented countries better known for competitive badminton, diving, cricket and soccer.

One player largely unknown to the world was Aditi Ashok of India, at 18 the youngest player in the field. She was tied for eighth after two rounds with a pair of 68s.

Ashok ultimately finished 41st, shooting a seven-over-par 291 in the 72-hole event. But her performance the first two days was a reminder that being represented in golf at the Rio Games was important for a country like India.

“I’m so happy that I qualified to represent my country,” Ashok told the news media early in the tournament. “We don’t have that many girls playing, and this will definitely boost the popularity of the game in India.”

Later in the week, Ashok added, “I’m going to build on this, and the next time I play bigger events, I’m sure this experience is going to help me.”

After the Olympics, Ashok headed to California, where she and 346 other players from 45 countries tried to earn 2017 playing status at the L.P.G.A.’s annual qualifying tournament. Joining her were Maha Haddioui of Morocco, who finished last in Rio at 31 over, as well as the Olympians Tiffany Chan of Hong Kong and Michelle Koh of Malaysia.

Chan, a senior at Southern California, was one of three amateurs competing in Rio. Years ago, she said, she made it a goal to compete in the Olympics.

“Just to be called an Olympian is something I will treasure,” said Chan, who finished 37th in Rio.

Miriam Nagl had the opportunity to hit the first tee shot in Rio as one of two Brazilians in the field. She and her compatriot Victoria Lovelady played college golf in the United States and have played professionally in Europe and in the United States.

Both said they appreciated the support of the many Brazilians who followed them on the course each round, and they left the week hopeful their part in the Olympics could benefit the sport’s growth in their homeland.

“I hope it’s going to make a difference,” said Nagl, who attended Arizona State and finished 52nd in Rio. “The golf course in Rio will make golf more accessible, but there has to be an objective to help the young kids try the game. Otherwise, it will just be a dream that won’t come true.”

Lovelady, who played at U.S.C. and finished tied for 53rd at the Olympics, appreciated that her fan gallery at the Games was ethnically and economically diverse — and energetic, even if not everyone understood golf.

“It was so cool to see the interest and the curiosity from the people who came to watch,” she said. “Probably 90 percent were nongolfers.”

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Lovelady said she believed that Rio de Janeiro would be the real winner with the Olympic golf course that was left behind. She said she hoped that it would attract professional tournaments and that golf federations from around the world would use it for training in winter.

She said she also hoped that the course would serve as home base for junior golf in Rio and that it would be affordable for beginners.

“It can have a legacy for humanity — giving everybody the right to come there and to train,” she said.

The Rio Games also gave hope to players around the world who were not in the 60-member tournament field.

Nhung Tang of Vietnam played badminton before she took up golf. Now, she plays in tournaments in Asia and divides time between Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where she teaches the game.

“I think it’s a huge matter now that golf is an Olympic sport,” she said. “It does inspire me, and it also inspires junior golfers in Vietnam.”

And because Vietnam won its first Olympic gold medal this year, in the men’s 10-meter air pistol competition, Tang added: “Anything is possible. Now people are asking when will Vietnam have a lady golfer in the next Olympics?”

Cindy Lee-Pridgen of Malaysia, who played on the Symetra Tour, the L.P.G.A. developmental tour, watched the Games from Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, where she lives. She was especially focused on Koh, a fellow Malaysian.

But even watching the telecasts from a country where golf is not celebrated, Lee-Pridgen observed that women’s golf in the Olympics was right there beside swimming and track in the public’s eye.

“With golf being in the Olympics, it gives everyone the ability to watch these talented women play and opens up the idea of playing golf to those who are not,” she said.

Golf participation has risen in the United States to 5.8 million women in 2016, from 5.7 million last year, according to the National Golf Foundation.

Based on statistics from the United States Golf Association, nine female U.S.G.A. champions from eight countries competed in Rio.

In addition, the U.S.G.A. this year registered golf handicap indexes for more than 2.3 million players from 84 associations, federations and unions at more than 14,000 courses around the world. Of that number, 438,457 handicap indexes belong to women, who also posted more than 6 million scores.

No doubt, China took notice that one of its 70 medals came from a new sport this summer. Feng said her bronze medal in golf could have a lasting impact.

“It’s going to change everything about golf in China,” she said.

And golf in the Olympics may do the same for women in the sport around the world.

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