She's Back in the Picture
Following a four-year drought with a tear of great play, Inbee Park arrives at the U.S. Women's Open focused on winning her third consecutive major. It's all about balance
History doesn't always read like you think it will. This was supposed to be the Yani Tseng Era for the LPGA, or at least it seemed that way when she won five major championships by age 22. But Tseng hasn't won a tournament in 15 months, and the spotlight is brightly on Inbee Park, who a year ago was barely a blip on anyone's radar but now finds herself in a conversation with the greats of women's golf.
Park goes into the U.S. Women's Open having won the first two majors of the year, a feat accomplished only seven times by legends such as Patty Berg, Mickey Wright, Pat Bradley and Annika Sorenstam. Only Babe Zaharias in 1950, the birth year of the LPGA, got the first three. How Park, a 24-year-old South Korean, climbed into such heady company is a story of love, independence, perseverance and a potent putter. And there is reason to think she might be able to pull off the rare hat trick.
Sebonack GC in Southampton, N.Y. -- known for its sharply contoured greens and wind that can whip in off the Atlantic Ocean -- is a mystery to virtually everyone in the field, but Park has proven to be a tough USGA player. In addition to victories in the U.S. Girls' Junior and U.S. Women's Open, Park, who took over the top spot on the Rolex Rankings in April, has finished in the top 10 in four of her other five starts in the Open. Plus, she is the best putter on tour, a trait that should serve her well at Sebonack, a design collaboration of Jack Nicklaus and Tom Doak that opened in 2006.
"I just love playing in major championships," says Park, who seemed unfazed by her chance at history after winning the recent Wegmans LPGA Championship. She now has won three of the four LPGA majors in her career and started her victory burst at last year's Evian Masters, which in September becomes the tour's fifth major. "[This year] instead of four [majors] there's five, so there's more tournaments to win," she says with good humor, liking the possibilities.
The only females to win a season's first two majors since the founding of the LPGA were Berg (who did it two times), Zaharias, Wright, Sandra Haynie, Bradley and Sorenstam. And the only ones in the women's game to win three majors in a year were Zaharias, when there were only three majors; Wright, who won three majors in 1961 along with a third in the Western Open; and Bradley in 1986 when she added the du Maurier Classic after finishing T-5 in the U.S. Women's Open.
Sorenstam, who was T-23 in the 2005 U.S. Women's Open after triumphs at the Kraft Nabisco and LPGA Championship, is well aware of the burden Park will bear as she goes for the triple. "There was a lot of outside attention, and I was obviously aware of the history at stake so there was extra pressure," Sorenstam says. "My game just didn't click that week -- I think because I was forcing things. Looking back, I wanted it badly and just tried too hard."
Park understands competitive frustration. She burst on the scene by winning the 2008 U.S. Women's Open at 19, becoming the championship's youngest winner, but then went winless on the LPGA for more than four years. Now, however, she seems to have found something that will prevent her from being a flash in the pan, a fate common to her countrywomen: a peace rare for anyone, especially an athlete and particularly one coming from the highly competitive Korean culture where one of the few professional avenues open to women in a male-dominated society is sports.
And Park may be inspiring Korean girls in the same way Se Ri Pak did 15 years ago, providing them a new blueprint for success. Instead of traveling with second-guessing parents, she finds shelter, support and a bit of instruction from her constant companion, Gi Hyeob Nam, a former Korean PGA Tour player who is both her fiancÚ and swing coach. They have been dating since 2008, and he has been her coach since mid-2011. It has made all the difference.
While still a model of the impressive Korean work ethic -- she practices as much as anyone -- Park finds time to go to the movies, watch Korean TV on her iPad, play the piano, occasionally ski, shop and, with lightning ease, smile. And rarely is she far from Nam.
"I really started playing well since I started traveling with him, and he has been a big help on my swing and mentally and everything," says Park. As for when the wedding will be, she says playfully, "I'll tell you when it's two months before."
In the brief break between rounds of the 36-hole Sunday finish at the rain-interrupted LPGA Championship earlier this month, Park and Nam sat alone beneath a tree and shared lunch. The moment spoke of the calm she has found with him, a serenity that allowed her to regroup after a sloppy final five holes of regulation to outlast Catriona Matthew on the third extra hole at Locust Hill CC for her sixth win in her last 22 LPGA starts.
Traveling with her fiancÚ instead of her parents is just one of the advantages Park has over most of the 35 or so Koreans on the LPGA. First off, she came to the United States at 12, learned English and developed friendships with her AJGA contemporaries such as Paula Creamer, Morgan Pressel and Brittany Lincicome. When she began life as an LPGA pro, Park was already acclimated to America. She also doesn't have the pressure to support her family, as do some Korean LPGA members, because her parents both own successful businesses in South Korea.