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Inbee Park brings South Korean golf full circle, wins Olympic gold in Rio

After a long injury break and failing to make a cut since April, critics questioned if Inbee Park deserved a spot on South Korea's Olympic roster. Now she'll bring the country the first women's golf gold medal since 1900.

Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Entering the week, it wouldn't have shocked anyone across the golf world to see a member of the South Korean delegation take home the first Olympic medal in women's golf since 1900.

Since Se Ri Pak first burst onto the scene nearly 20 years ago, arguably no nation has committed to supporting excellence in a sport like South Korea has to women's golf. At the time Pak won the 1998 US Women's Open, she was the only Korean player on an LPGA Tour dominated by Americans and Europeans. Today, more than a third of the world's top 100 players hail from the crowded nation on the southern end of the Korean Peninsula -- often from middle-class families pouring all available resources into their daughters' on-course successes. The LPGA's largest source of revenue is from its South Korean TV rights deal. It's all a living testament to the impact a single athletic success can have on the development of golf in a nation.

But, Inbee Park wasn't supposed to be the player to bring South Korea Olympic golf glory this time around. Sure, she's the nation's top player in the Rolex Rankings -- the women's game's answer to the men's Official World Golf Rankings. But with injuries, struggles and a break when she didn't touch a club for over a month leading into the game, Park hadn't even made a cut in a professional event since April. Such events undoubtedly made for some national controversy in the golf-crazy nation back home, with other more in-form players also inside the world's top 10 left out of the event because of the four-player-per-nation cap.

But under the watchful eye of Pak, acting as South Korea's captain for the games, Park turned in the performance of a lifetime in her final round, bringing golf full circle in the nation that's come to love it more than any other across the globe.

With world number 1 Lydia Ko chasing from two shots behind in the same pairing, Park ripped the drama out of the day early in the morning. With tee times moved up several hours because of the the threat of afternoon storms, Park made four early birdies on the front nine -- going out in 31 and stretching her lead out from two to as many as six heading into the back nine. That was all she wrote for the drama at the top of the leaderboard -- a back-nine 35 was more than enough for Park to enjoy her stroll to the gold medal stand.

But plenty of drama remained on the course for the two other medal positions.

China's Shanshan Feng surged past the USA's Stacy Lewis and Gerina Piller, as well as Ko, early in the round and looked to be the one who might be able to at least show up in Park's rearview mirror. But a 1-over par finish from Feng over the final 7 holes left the door wide open for Lewis and Ko to surge back on the the medal stand. Birdies on the 16th and 17th gave Lewis a chance to make one more on the final hole to get to -10 and into a playoff for bronze, but she left her putt on the 72nd hole just short. The world's best player took advantage of the open door. After driving the par-4 16th and making birdie, Ko -- who was born in Korea and then grew up in New Zealand with Korean parents -- sunk a big putt on the final hole to overtake Feng for silver.

But just making the medal stand at all is a massive cause for celebration in China -- which looks something like South Korea in 1998. Feng is the first Chinese player on the LPGA Tour, and the country which already invests heavily in its Olympic program is just getting its feet under itself in golf on both the men's and women's side. Traditionally reserved for the elite and wealthy, there's been a renewed emphasis in the game among the nation's growing middle class.

Sound familiar?

While golf's return to the Olympics on the men's side was largely a mess saved by a best-case scenario finish, the IGF and IOC couldn't have written the script to the women's side much better. A legacy come full-circle for the nation that fell in love with the game 20 years ago, while another might just be emerging on the scene.