South Korean LPGA veteran Inbee Park hopes to play her way back to the Olympics

South Korea's Inbee Park says a return to the Olympics is a priority since it's probably her last chance to compete in the Games. Michael Reaves/Getty Images

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- There is more motivation for LPGA Tour players this season beyond winning tournaments and major championships.

Even Inbee Park, gold medalist at the 2016 Rio Olympics, admitted that the goal of qualifying for this summer's Tokyo Games weighs heavily on her mind. She is currently a second alternate behind five other South Koreans for this year's competition.

"I definitely want to take this Olympic opportunity as a big priority in my career and [it's] probably my last one," said Park, 31, who is tied for the lead after Friday's second round of the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions at Four Seasons Golf and Sports Club Orlando.

"Already, four Korean players are competing, so I guess we can't really complain about that," the World Golf Hall of Fame member added. "It's good that I have an opportunity. Whether I'm in or not, I think it's worth having a go."

This year's Olympic Games are set for July 24 through Aug. 9. Golf returns for the second consecutive Games, with the women's and men's fields restricted to 60 players each. World golf rankings determine eligibility for Olympic golf rankings.

According to the Olympic golf rankings, the top 15 world-ranked players will be eligible to compete, with a limit of four players representing each nation. Beyond the top 15 world-ranked players, eligible players for the Games will be based on world rankings, with a maximum of two eligible players from each country not already ranked in the world's top 15.

Women will attempt to climb the rankings through the end of their Olympic rankings qualification period on June 29, which will be the Monday following the LPGA's KPMG Women's PGA Championship.

And for Park, that means she will have to start a steady climb up the current Olympic rankings. She is currently behind top-ranked South Koreans Jin Young Ko, Sung Hyun Park, Sei Young Kim, Jeong Eun Lee6 and first replacement Hyo-Joo Kim. Inbee Park is replacement No. 2 behind Hyo-Joo Kim.

It's a daunting challenge. When 2019 Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions winner Eun Hee Ji was asked how hard it is to make South Korea's Olympic team, she just shook her head.

"Oh man, all the Koreans are great players and a lot of players have high world rankings, so I have to really work hard and play the best to make it," she said. "It's going to be hard to make that team, but yeah, that's a goal to make the Olympics."

Currently, Americans Nelly Korda, Danielle Kang and Lexi Thompson are ranked in the top 10, at third, fourth and 10th, respectively.

Kang began her path to the Olympic Games at about age 10 or 12. At that time, however, she was aiming to punch and kick her way to the Games in the sport of taekwondo.

"I've had the Olympics as a dream since I was a little kid," said Kang, who was in seventh place after Friday's second round. "My dream started not because of golf. It's actually because of martial arts."

Kang worked hard and competed as a martial artist, winning trophies, earning belts and moving through the levels of her sport. But after a number of years of throwing blows, Kang "stepped away" from martial arts.

"The next thing I knew, I picked up golf and here I am," she said. "For this year, I have my goals, and the Olympics is definitely a part of that goal."

Brooke Henderson represented Canada at the 2016 Rio Games alongside Alena Sharp. Henderson is currently ranked No. 8 for the 2020 Olympics and is the top Canadian poised for Tokyo.

"To be with the best athletes in the world and watching them compete and train, and to stay in the Olympic Village with them was really cool," said Henderson, who was tied for first with Inbee Park after Friday's round. "I think this year, I'm excited for all 34 events on the LPGA Tour, and the Olympics is just another one. It will definitely be fun to go and represent Canada again."

But for LPGA players from South Korea and the United States, and even host nation Japan -- which has LPGA rising star Nasa Hataoka listed at No. 6 in the Olympic rankings -- the climb up the rankings for a chance to compete in the 2020 Olympic Games is one serious challenge.

"We don't talk about it, but everybody wants to play in the Olympics," Ji said.

Even Inbee Park, with 19 career wins, was surprised about her experience and the resulting public reaction to her gold-medal performance at the Rio Games.

"I didn't know what the Olympics was going to be like or how important it was going to be as a professional golfer," she said. "I had a lot of questions in my mind."

But when she went home to South Korea after the Games, many of those questions were answered.

"What I've experienced after the Olympics was that so many people recognize me, but they have never recognized me before even though I've won seven major championships," she said. "They recognize me now because I won one Olympic gold medal."

And even in golf-crazy South Korea, Park realized just what a gold medal meant to the people of her nation, which arguably embraces women's golf like no other.

"I think it's just the exposure that we are getting in the Olympics for that one week," she said. "[It's] probably bigger than what I have done for three, four years on the tour. The impact is just that big."

And the desire to make the 2020 Olympic Games is certainly going to be a driving force again for Park, Henderson and players from across the globe, all hoping for their chance to medal in golf and raise awareness for their sport.

Lisa D. Mickey has covered golf for Golf World, Golf For Women, The New York Times, the U.S. Golf Association, LPGA.com, Virginia Golfer Magazine and for various other publications and websites. She is based in Florida.