Following The Leader
After watching countrywoman Se Ri Pak capture the 1998 U.S. Women's Open as a child, Korea's Inbee Park forged her own path to winning the same championship 10 years later.
May 13, 2009
By Mike Kern
In July of 1998, a 9-year-old Inbee Park watched from the other side of the world as fellow Korean Se Ri Pak became the youngest player, and first Asian, to win the U.S. Women’s Open.
The young girl was hardly alone. Even if it meant sleep deprivation – the final round and subsequent playoff between the 20-year-old Pak and amateur Jenny Chuasiriporn was being aired live in the wee hours of the morning – an entire nation was witnessing history.
Little did Park know that a decade later, she would erase Pak’s name from the record book.
"I wasn’t playing golf back then," said Park, now 20, to the media on May 11 at Saucon Valley Country Club in Bethlehem, Pa., where she’ll defend her U.S. Women’s Open title starting on July 9. "I didn’t know much about the game. I just knew my parents were playing. And my grandparents. They were watching the championship. It was the biggest championship. Almost everybody was watching. Not just because [of Pak], but because it was a great championship.
"It was very early in the morning," Park recalled. "The sound [from the television] woke me up because it was very loud. My parents got very excited. So I watched, to see how she was doing. It looked really good to me. A couple of days later, my dad was asking me to play golf. He was asking me for years before that. He loved to play, but I never wanted to. It didn’t look like fun. But after watching that, I decided I should play. And it made a lot of people happy."
The rest, as they say, is history.
Last June at Interlachen C.C. in Edina, Minn., in her second season on the LPGA Tour and two weeks shy of her 20th birthday, Park was the only competitor to break par in all four rounds. Her 9-under-par 283 total gave her a four-shot victory over 43-year-old Helen Alfredsson.
"Putting my name on the trophy was a great honor for me," said Park, who didn’t lead until the second hole in Sunday’s final round. "We know this championship is the best test for golfers.
"I thought it was possible, but I didn’t really think about winning after the third round. Maybe on the back nine of the last round. Then, I thought I might have a chance. I just waited. Then I went after it. I think that’s the reason I actually was able to win. I didn’t chase the win.
"Before last year, I played in the last group a few times," Park continued. "But I never played a good last round. I’d be second or third, and always finish outside the top 10. Or ninth or eighth. But it gave me lot of experience, on what to do. That’s why I was able to finally do it.
"I definitely wanted to win. But maybe in the future. I didn’t know it was going to be this quick."
Regardless of age, winning the U.S. Women’s Open changes a person’s life forever. For one, it made Park a hero in her home country.
"I didn’t realize it until we went back to Korea," said Park. "Before that, I knew it was big. But I couldn’t feel it as much. At home, a lot of people came out to congratulate me. A lot of people recognized me. It felt good."
Park first showed signs of her immense talent when she claimed the 2002 U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship at Echo Lake C.C., about an hour east of Saucon Valley in Westfield, N.J. She nearly became the third player to win back-to-back titles in 2003, but lost a 5-up lead to fellow Korean Sukjin-Lee Wuesthoff at Brooklawn C.C. in Fairfield, Conn. Another Korean, In-Kyung Kim, beat Park in the 2005 Girls’ Junior final at BanBury G.C. in Eagle, Idaho. She is one of two golfers (three-time Girls' Junior and three-time U.S. Open champion Hollis Stacy is the other) to play in three U.S. Girls' Junior finals.
"I really like the tree-lined courses," said Park, whose victory at Interlachen came on a parkland course. "I don’t know why. Where I live, in Las Vegas, there’s not many. But it seems like it’s working [for me], especially in the summertime."
If that’s the case, Park should love this year’s Women’s Open venue. The Old Course at Saucon Valley is a classic parkland layout that has been the host site for five previous USGA championships, starting with the 1951 U.S. Amateur. Since then, it’s added a U.S. Junior Amateur, USGA Senior Amateur and two U.S. Senior Opens (the last in 2000) to that résumé. This is the first women’s USGA national championship to be contested at Saucon Valley.
Only Merion Golf Club (17) in the Philadelphia suburb of Ardmore and Oakmont (14) outside of Pittsburgh have hosted more USGA events in Pennsylvania.
The course, which has been lengthened and strengthened by a Tom Fazio Golf Design renovation since the 2000 U.S. Senior Open, will play 6,740 yards. That makes it the third-longest Women’s Open in history. Interlachen was slightly longer (6,789 yards), but it played to a par of 73 with five par 5s. The U.S. Women’s Open at Cherry Hills, in 2005, played 6,749 yards in the high altitude outside of Denver, where balls travel farther in the thinner air.
Saucon Valley will play to a par 71 with only three par 5s, so this Women’s Open, at least from a length standpoint, could be one of the toughest in recent memory.
"Given the fact that some of the golf course actually sits in a floodplain, and there’s not as much roll, this will absolutely be the longest test, in terms of how it will play," said Mike Davis, USGA senior director of Rules and Competitions and the person in charge of setting up the course. "You might see it play the toughest, all year long. Ideally, we want to test every single aspect of a player’s game. We want it to be a challenging, yet fair [test], whether it’s putting, driving the ball, recovery from the rough, recovery from around the greens, or the mental side of it."
Nobody said a Women’s Open was supposed to be easy. This is, after all, the biggest championship in women’s golf.
"I didn’t know too much [about Saucon Valley] before today," said Park after hearing Davis speak. "I know enough information now, so I think I can prepare. Start lifting weights. I hope they don’t make it too hard for us.
"At any of the USGA championships, you have to play for the par. That’s the thing. You know people are going to make mistakes. You know you’re going to make mistakes, too. You just try to recover, make birdies on the par 5s and easier par 4s. Pick the holes where you really have to go for it. And pick the holes where you really have to be careful."
Two years ago, Park finally got to play with Pak for the first time. It came during the U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club in Southern Pines, N.C.
"We were two groups before the last group," she remembered, as if it happened yesterday. "I finished fourth. It was the best career finish for me. It was just a great experience, like a dream [come] true. I told her that I was watching her [in 1998]. She was really nice to me, listening to my words. She tried to teach me to play a little better. It was just great."
Following Pak’s 1998 U.S. Women’s Open triumph, a golf boom swept through Korea. More and more young girls began to play, and the results can be seen in the number of Koreans now competing in USGA championships and on the LPGA Tour.
"A lot of young girls were picking up golf," said Park, who came to the U.S. in 2001 to improve her golf game. "It’s gotten bigger and bigger. She gave a lot of young girls hope, that you can do it, too.
Because you never can tell where that hope might take them.
Mike Kern is a Philadelphia-based writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA Web sites.