Top women's players to star as golf returns in South Korea

Park Sung-hyun (Getty Images)
Park Sung-hyun (Getty Images)

Leading professional golfers will return to competitive action for the first time in months after the coronavirus shutdown when three of the world's top 10 women tee off in South Korea on Thursday.

The domestic showpiece KLPGA Championship will follow the country's football and baseball leagues in starting behind closed doors at the Lakewood Country Club in Yangju, northeast of Seoul.

World No 3 Park Sung-hyun, sixth-ranked Kim Sei-young and No 10 Lee Jeong-eun will be in a 150-strong field chasing the $180 000 winner's cheque from a tournament purse of $2.5 million, the highest in the event's 42-year history.

South Korea - which endured one of the worst early outbreaks of the disease outside mainland China - has brought Covid-19 under control with a widespread "trace, test and treat" programme, and has begun to resume professional sport.

South Korean players dominate women's golf and the US-based LPGA Tour, with three golfers ranked in the world's top six and eight players in the top 20.

Two-time major-winner Park, Kim, a nine-time winner on the LPGA Tour, and current US Open champion Lee were already back home in the country when the virus lockdown began.

They had returned after the LPGA season was suspended in February because of the pandemic following the Australian Open, which was won by another Korean, the world number 11 Park In-bee.

No chatting at lunch

No spectators will be allowed inside Lakewood Country Club and strict protocols will be in place to guard against the risk of infection.

Playing without the fans is a "pity", said the sixth-ranked Kim.

"Usually a lot of fans show up, more here in Korea than in the US," she said. "But I'm thankful for just even being able to play."

All players and staff will have their temperature checked before entering the venue and all support personnel must wear face masks at all times.

Players turning up for practice rounds on Wednesday were required to wear masks before and after play.

Some opted to don one on the course, where they were kept at least two metres from their competitors and were careful to keep contact with caddies to a minimum.

Media covering the tournament are restricted to two designated areas on the course at the first and 10th tees.

Each player will have to eat meals alone to maintain social distancing, with no caddies or family members allowed to sit at the same table in the players' lounge.

"At lunch all the golfers had to face the same direction while eating" without chatting, said Park Sung-hyun. "All of this was quite new".

Only four LPGA Tour events have been completed this year - the last in Adelaide on 16 February - and the tour has outlined plans to resume in mid-July in Michigan.

The men's PGA Tour, which came to a juddering halt when the Players Championship was abandoned after the first round in March, has pencilled in a restart behind closed doors at the Charles Schwab Challenge beginning 11 June at Fort Worth, Texas.

With sports fans around the world starved of live action overseas broadcasters have shown unprecedented interest in South Korea's normally low-profile domestic competitions.

A KLPGA spokesman said the tournament has drawn "global attention", adding US network CBS was in negotiations for broadcast rights.

Lee Jeong-eun, the world No 10, said: "I'm sure everyone is having a hard time and exhausted because of the coronavirus outbreak. I hope people will cheer up watching us play."

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