SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – Inbee Park has been knocking it out of the park this year on the LPGA Tour. A victory this week in the U.S. Women’s Open, and she’ll extend her bid in hitting for golf’s equivalent of the cycle.
Having won the first two majors of the year, the Kraft Nabisco and the Wegman’s LPGA Championship, Park, 24, a native of Korea, is being mentioned in the same breath with some of the legends of women’s golf on the eve of the 68th U.S. Women’s Open. Only seven times previously has a player begun the year with wins in the first two majors; the others are Patty Berg (who did it twice), Mickey Wright, Babe Zaharias, Sandra Haynie, Annika Sorenstam and Pat Bradley.
A win on Sunday at Sebonack Golf Club, the tantalizing Jack Nicklaus-Tom Doak design overlooking Great Peconic Bay on Long Island, and Park will be in exclusive company with Zaharias, who captured the first three majors of the year in 1950, the LPGA’s initial season. Bradley and Wright also won three majors in a season, but not consecutively.
“I just love playing in major championships,” said Park, winner of the 2008 U.S. Women’s Open and the 2002 U.S. Girls’ Junior.
The world’s No. 1 player in the Rolex Rankings since April, when she passed Stacy Lewis, Park just loves playing anywhere. Her playoff victory Sunday over compatriot So Yeon Ryu at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship was her fifth win of the year, tying the record for wins in a season by a Korean player, and her seventh victory in the last two seasons.
It’s an amazing surge by a player who didn’t win at all for four years after her breakthrough in the ’08 U.S. Women’s Open at Interlachen Country Club near Minneapolis. But Park has been able to marry improved ball striking with a putting stroke that always has been formidable.
“Yeah, it has been great for me. I've played very good golf the last two or three months,” said Park, who has made great strides with her swing thanks to her coach and fiancé, Gi Hyeob Nam, a former Korean PGA Tour pro. “Everything's been going the right way. Everything's going the way I really want it to. I'm hitting the ball and striking it great and putting it very well. Especially last week, I struck the ball very well, and that gave me a lot of confidence coming into this week.”
“Inbee has had a phenomenal year so far,” said Suzanne Pettersen of Norway, who has finished in the top 15 in each of her last five starts in the U.S. Women’s Open, including runner-up in 2010. “It’s not really very surprising that she keeps contending and makes those crucial putts on Sundays. The best part of her game is her putting.”
According to Park, who won the 2012 Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average at 70.21, it’s had to be.
“I honestly think because I’ve missed so many greens and fairways after the Open [in 2008], I was just hitting it everywhere,” Park said, explaining how she came to hone her putting. “I had to get it up‑and‑down from everywhere. I’ve improved a lot on my short game, because I had to hit it out of so many places. I probably missed nine or 10 greens per round. I was hitting it horribly after the U.S. Open. Trying to get up‑and‑downs from everywhere gave me a lot of focus.”
This run of great golf has, in turn, put increasing focus on Park. That might bring added pressure on most players. Park doesn’t seem to be bothered.
In fact, just the opposite.
“Yeah, I’ve had a lot of wins this year, and that's definitely taken a lot of pressure off of me,” Park said. “Coming into this season after last season I was really doubting myself if I could do as good as last year, but I’ve done a lot better this year. Yes, I mean, that's just been putting a lot of pressure off of me, and it’s just been helping my game a lot. Yeah, not feeling as pressured as before.”
Sounds like her competition is feeling some heat, however.
“It’s frustrating for the rest of us, that’s for sure,” Lewis said. “I know people like to see somebody make history and do all of that, but for players it’s frustrating to see someone sit there and win week after week after week. But she’s making good putts and she's steady. Every time I feel like she may have an OK round and then the next day she’s up there on the leaderboard again.”
“I think everybody’s scared of Inbee because she's playing super well (the) last 12 months, even more, like 14 months,” Ryu said after Park made a four-foot birdie putt on the first playoff hole in Arkansas. “... So, if her name is top on the leaderboard, she makes everybody really nervous.”
Pettersen wasn’t quite buying that, countering: “I don’t quite look at Inbee as dominating, if you want to call it that, as Annika was and Lorena [Ochoa] was. I think there is very much a lot of us in the hunt for that No. 1. If I look at my own game, I’ve been playing good in the tournaments I really want to play well in. If you keep winning tournaments, it will kind of take care of the rest of the stats.”
Kind of like what’s happening to Park, who is a heavy favorite this week because of her recent strong play and also because Sebonack’s large, undulating greens play to her strength.
“There is a lot of thinking going on on this golf course, I think,” Park said. “Playing so many different tees, and the greens are just very undulated. It's just going to be a very big challenge this week. I think we're going to have some three‑putts here, but I think you have to take your medicine and try to be really patient on the greens here.”
Park, who resides in Murrieta, Calif., enjoys skiing and playing the piano when she gets away from the golf course. She also likes movies, “The Notebook” being one of her favorites.
The record book is her focus this week, though.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.