In a season of searching, Sung Hyun Park finds her game and wins the KPMG Women's PGA
The problem with a dominant rookie season is that you're expected to follow it up the next year. In chasing and achieving success, you're left with the daunting expectations of winning again, and again, in the seasons that follow. When those wins come, it's great. When they don't, it's confusing and frustrating.
For Sung Hyun Park, the 2018 season has been the latter.
In 2017, the 24-year-old from South Korea won the U.S. Women's Open, the Canadian Pacific Women's Open and had four other top-three finishes. She finished the season not only with Rookie of the Year honors but was named co-Player of the Year with So Yeon Ryu, just the second time a first-year player has claimed that honor.
Yet heading into Thursday's first round of the KPMG Women's PGA Championship, the third major on the LPGA calendar, Park had played 12 events in 2018 and missed the cut in five of them. She'd won once, the Texas Volunteers of America Shootout, which was abbreviated to 36 holes. Besides that win, she'd finished in the top 20 only one other time. The player who looked as if she would dominate the LPGA was doing the opposite.
By Sunday evening, however, that changed: Park is now the proud winner of a second major championship title.
After opening with a six-under 66 at Kemper Lakes Golf Club outside of Chicago, Park closed with a three-under 69, tying her with So Yeon Ryu and Nasa Hataoka at 10 under. The three women walked to the 18th tee for their first playoff hole. No. 18 had given up just one birdie all day, but in less than 20 minutes, two more were made. Park and Ryu moved on, as Hataoka, who had won in Arkansas the week before and shot a closing 64, then waited nearly two hours to see if it would be good enough, was eliminated with a par.
Park and Ryu both had birdie putts on the second playoff hole, when officials had to stop play for a brief weather delay (the forecasted storms that caused tee times to be moved up on Sunday arriving). When the two women came back out roughly 20 minutes later, Ryu missed her birdie putt from 15 feet, while Park knocked hers in from nine to clinch the win.
For Ryu, the loss meant a missed opportunity to get one step closer to the career Grand Slam. She already has won the U.S. Women's Open and the ANA Inspiration and had carried a three-stroke lead into the final round at Kemper Lakes before closing with a 73 that included a gut-wrenching double-bogey 5 on the par-3 17th in regulation.
For Park, it was a moment of redemption. Just seconds after her birdie putt fell, the usually stoic Park broke down in tears.
"It's been a tough year for me since there was five times of missed cuts," said Park, through a translator. "And even though it was a really tough year, I think I did really good play this week, and I think all the work I've done has paid off today. That's what really made me cry."
Park didn't make a single bogey over the last 30 holes of the tournament, and averaged 286 yards off the tee in the final round, impressive stuff when you've got a title on the line. But the moment that most demonstrated her game is major-championship caliber came at the 16th hole in regulation. Park's approach came up short and settled in the high grass on the edge of the pond. She talked the shot over at length with her caddie, who got in the hazard with her to take a good look at the lie, and decided it was good enough to play. The ball came flying out and settled a few feet from the hole. Shortly after she finished off an amazing up and down.
Even if she hadn't won the tournament, her shot at the 16th would've been talked about as the best shot of the championship.
Winning the title is obviously the real victory here for Park, but being able to convert a shot that difficult, under that much pressure, is as strong of a sign as any that Park, though not without her struggles in 2018, is plenty capable of still being the tour's next dominant player.
The amount of emotion that the notoriously emotionless player showed at the end of the event was proof that any questions she may have been asking herself about her ability were finally answered.
"Actually this is my first time feeling like this kind of emotion, like being this emotional," Park explained after the round, "and I was really happy."