With all the talk about America’s best player who doesn’t own a major, a 23-year-old seeking to be the first to win a major in her professional debut and the swan song for one of the game’s greats, somebody somehow forgot to mention a 19-year-old Korean who has established quite a solid USGA résumé.
Inbee Park, winner of the 2002 U.S. Girls’ Junior and a finalist on two other occasions, added the biggest championship in women’s golf to her trophy collection on Sunday at Interlachen Country Club. While everyone atop the leader board going into the final round stumbled and tumbled downward, the precocious Park managed a 2-under-par 71 (9-under 283) to win the 2008 U.S. Women’s Open by four strokes, thus becoming the youngest champion in the event’s history and usurping the mark held by one of her country’s greatest players.
Se Ri Pak, who won a memorable 20-hole playoff in 1998 over amateur Jenny Chuasiriporn, previously was the youngest winner at 20 years, 9 months.
"I am very honored to win this championship," said Park, who now resides in Henderson, Nev. "It’s the first win for my career and hopefully there will be a lot more. I really can’t believe I just did this."
Not only was this the second-year LPGA Tour pro’s first win on that circuit, she joined 15 players, including Laura Davies, Edina’s own Hilary Lunke and Annika Sorenstam, to make that initial victory a U.S. Women’s Open title.
She also is the fifth player in USGA history to win a U.S. Girls’ Junior and Women’s Open, joining three Hall of Famers in Mickey Wright, Amy Alcott and JoAnne Gunderson Carner, along with Hollis Stacy.
The day was not so thrilling for 54-hole leader Stacy Lewis. The 23-year-old from The Woodlands, Texas, who was making her professional debut this week, double-bogeyed her second hole and limped home with a 5-over 78 to share third with 2005 U.S. Girls’ Junior champion In-Kyung Kim and Angela Park of Brazil, who tied for second last year.
"I felt like I didn’t play that poorly," said Lewis, a member of the victorious 2008 USA Curtis Cup team, where she went 5-0. "I just got above some of the holes and you just can’t be there. It’s hard to be upset. I finished third at the U.S. Open [in] my first pro event."
Six-time LPGA Tour winner Paula Creamer, 21, of Pleasanton, Calif., seeking that first major to validate her credential as one of the game’s top stars, also double bogeyed the second hole and carded a 78 to share sixth at 3-under 289, while 1993 Women’s Open runner-up Helen Alfredsson, seeking to exorcise the demons from her weekend meltdown at the ’94 Open, had a 75 to get solo second. The 43-year-old Swede posted a total of 5-under 287.
Sorenstam, who is retiring from the LPGA Tour at the end of year, ended her disappointing week with a highlight-reel eagle-3 hole-out from 199 yards away with a 6-iron at the 72nd hole to avoid tying her worst-ever round at the Women’s Open. The 37-year-old Swede shot a 78 to tie for 24th at 3-over 295. Sorenstam had an 80 in her first Open 16 years ago as an amateur.
Ever since Park showed up at the 2002 U.S. Girls’ Junior at Echo Lake Country Club in Westfield, N.J., where she won the title as the stroke-play medalist, she’s been collecting USGA medals as if they are autographs. Twice she was the runner-up at the Girls’ Junior – blowing a 5-up lead with 10 to play in 2003 against Sukjin Lee Wuesthoff and she lost to In-Kyung Kim in ‘05 – and twice she has walked away with bronze medals: semifinalist at the 2003 U.S. Women’s Amateur and ’04 Women’s Amateur Public Links.
And last year at Pine Needles, she contended during the final round of the Women’s Open before settling for a share of fourth place in just her second start at that championship.
On a cool and blustery Sunday at Interlachen where Park was the lone competitor among the final nine groups to better par and the scoring average was 76.162, the new champion hit 10 of 18 greens in regulation and needed just 26 putts on the challenging Donald Ross layout. That included a clutch par-save at the ninth that maintained her two-stroke lead at the time over Lewis as well as a sand save at the par-3. Her only hiccup over the final nine holes was a bogey-5 at the difficult 17th hole, but she closed with a tap-in birdie for the widest margin of victory since Karrie Webb’s eight-stroke win at Pine Needles in 2001.
Upon leaving the 72nd green, fellow Koreans Ji Young Ohand In-Kyung Kim doused Park with beer and several caddies tossed her caddie Brad Beecher into the pond fronting the 18th green.
With the $585,000 first-place check, she can afford the dry-cleaning bill for her caddie.
At the start of the day, all eyes were on Lewis and Creamer, the first all-American final pairing at a Women’s Open since 2003. Lewis was hoping to make history as the first player to win a major championship in her professional debut, while Creamer had enormous crowd support as one of America’s leading players.
But neither could get anything going as evidenced by the twin 7s at the par-5 second. Creamer rolled in a 60-foot birdie at the fourth, but that was the end of her theatrics for the day.
"Just honestly, it was not my day," said Creamer, a member of the 2004 victorious USA Curtis Cup team. "Inbee played awesome. She really did. Two under par today, that’s a heck of a round out there.
"It’s probably … the most disappointed I’ve been in a very long time."
Alfredsson saw her chances of taking the title go awry with bogeys at five, eight and 12, which dropped her to three under. She rallied with a brilliant eagle at 13 and after a bogey at 16 she closed with a birdie to get second by herself.
"It was a tough day," said Alfredsson, who was paired with Park. "I lost a few shots early. Of course I three-putted what, five times? Just not very good. [But] everybody was losing shots … except for the one I play with.
[Inbee] played fantastic. I was very impressed with her composure. She was very calm. [She] never changed anything. And really that’s very impressive for a 19 year old."
Park jumped out quickly with birdies on the first two holes to tie Lewis at nine under and although she gave two strokes back to par at holes six and eight, she maintained her composure the rest of the round, thanks to the 15-foot downhill right-to-left curling par putt at nine. She added short birdie putts at 11 and 13 to give her a three-stroke cushion. In between she converted just her second sand save (in eight tries) of the week at the par-3 12th. By then, she was aware that she was starting to pull away from the pack.
"On the back nine pretty much every hole there was a scoreboard … and I am one of the persons who watches the scoreboards all the time," said Park. "I just did the same thing I always do. I don’t think it bothered me too much. It gave me motivation to stay on the top."
Back in 2002 when Park won her first USGA title, she told reporters through a translator that her name in Korean translates to "queen" in English.
On Sunday afternoon at historic Interlachen, Park ascended to the throne of women’s golf.