Three of women's top 10 to star as golf returns in S.Korea

Seoul (AFP) –


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 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 number three Park Sung-hyun, sixth-ranked Kim Sei-young and number 10 Lee Jeong-eun will be in a 150-strong field chasing a $180,000 winner's cheque from a record 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" model 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, nine-time winner on the LPGA Tour Kim and current US Open champion Lee were already back home in the country.

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.

- 'Centre of attention' -

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

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 will be required to wear masks before and after play and can opt to don one during their round, where they will have to keep a minimum of two metres from their competitors.

Media covering the tournament will be 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.

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

The men's US 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 June 11 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 US network CBS was in negotiations for rights to broadcast the tournament.

The contest "has been at the centre of global attention", the KLPGA said in a statement, adding it was making "making all-out efforts" to organise the event "to please golf fans fatigued by the coronavirus".