Posted by: happyfan08 | June 20, 2013

Inbee Park: Dominant Blood

She could feel the championship slipping away from her.  Sunday, June 9th, was the final round of the second Major on the LPGA tour, the Wegman’s LPGA Championship.  Bad weather had forced the tour to play 36 holes on this day, and by the late afternoon, the middle of the final 18 holes, the players were exhausted.  Inbee Park, the world’s #1 women’s golfer and the winner of the year’s first Major, had taken the lead in the morning 18 thanks to a brilliant 68.  But as the final nine holes wore on, she realized she was in trouble.  Her driving, usually so dependable, was highly erratic.  On this course, with high rough and a multitude of trees, missing the fairway was a ticket to a bogey – or worse.  And time and again, Park was missing fairways and putting herself in trouble.

Somehow she pressed on, but despite her famous short game and best-in-the-league putting, she was starting to make bogies.  On hole 14.  Then on 16.  Her lead continued to shrink.  Catriona Matthew had finished her day at 5 under, and Inbee was now at 6 under.  She could not afford to give away too many more strokes.  After scrambling for par on the par 5 17th, she reached the final hole needing a par to win, bogey to tie.  She did not want to consider anything worse than that, but she had in fact made double bogey at this very hole on the first day.

Inbee during the final round of the LPGA Championship

Her drive went into the rough again.  It was buried so deep that she could barely advance it from where it lay.  And for her third shot, she was still in the rough.  Somehow she powered it out of there, hit the green and watch it roll to the fringe.  From there, she set her short game to work, chipping to within a foot and draining the bogey putt to tie Matthew and force a playoff.  It had not been pretty, but Inbee Park showed that, even when exhausted, even when much of her great game was abandoning her, she still had the will to win that all true champions possess.

In the few minutes between ending her regulation play and starting the playoff, Park regrouped.  She told herself that she was going to hit the fairway on the next drive no matter what.  Hitting the fairway became her sole purpose in life at that moment.  As further motivation, her caddie promised to buy her a dinner every time she hit the fairway during the playoff.

Park and Matthew played three playoff holes.  Inbee hit two fairways, and missed the third by a foot.  It was Matthew who couldn’t keep the ball straight.  On the third playoff hole, Inbee sealed the victory by sinking an 18 footer for birdie on the very hole that had very nearly ended her title prospects 40 minutes earlier.  With that, she entered rarefied air: she became only the third LPGA golfer in the past 40 years to win the year’s first two Majors, and the first Korean to ever do it.  She wouldn’t have much time to rest: the US Women’s Open week would begin in just two weeks.  But no matter how she fares there, with her exploits thus far in 2013, she has managed to establish herself as the next great Korean star.

Inbee’s second Major title of 2013

A year ago, the kind of stardom Park now enjoys seemed very far away indeed.  She was ranked 26th in the world, and had not won an LPGA tournament since 2008.  She had seemed on the fast track to stardom before that.  A star in the junior ranks, she had notched two top tens in LPGA events while still an amateur.  She tried to join the tour while still underage, but was not granted a special exemption to do so, and wound up playing on the Futures Tour in 2006.  She did well there, earning an LPGA card by finishing third on the developmental tour’s money list.  Her rookie year was decent, although she had no wins and finished behind Angela Park for Rookie of the Year.  Then, just shy of her 20th birthday, Park surprised the world by capturing her first Major, the US Women’s Open, in 2008.  She became the youngest to ever win that title, beating the record formerly held by her idol, Se Ri Pak.  Inbee seemed poised to become a big star.

Inbee made the cover of Golf World after her Open win. Love the caption!

But the path to the top proved more circuitous than Park had envisioned.  She played decently the next few years on tour, but wins eluded her.  She was still making top tens in Majors (she had four in 2010 alone), and had multiple wins and top finishes when she played on the Japanese LPGA tour.  But her status on the LPGA continued to slide.  In 2011 she only finished 31st on the money list, with just three top tens.  The start of 2012 was little better: she missed the top ten in her first nine starts that year.

Meanwhile, though she didn’t realize it at the time, she had the secret to her emergence in her pocket all along.  Her fiancé was also a professional golfer, and when she finally got tired of her swing not behaving as it should, she asked him for his advice.  Before long, his lessons bore fruit, and Park began to play well again.  More than well: she went from a solid golfer with moments of brilliance to a relentless money machine who seemed to put herself within reach of the trophy week after week.

Interestingly, her incredible run to the top started at the 2012 LPGA Championship, where she made her first top ten of the season, a 9th.  She would rip off ten straight top tens in total, and more often than not, she would be in the hunt for the title.  At the very next event, in fact, the Manulife Financial, she lost in a playoff.  She followed that with a 4th place in Arkansas and a 9th at the US Women’s Open,.  Finally, at the next event, the Evian Masters, she found herself in the hunt on Sunday with a great chance to at last get her second career LPGA win.  She would in fact break through with the win that week, and in spectacular fashion, producing one of the greatest putting performances in LPGA history.  She needed only 22 putts on Sunday, and 98 for the week, to take the trophy.  Among those she beat that week was Stacy Lewis, with whom she played in the final round.

Inbee arrives back in Korea in 2012 after her Evian win

Park continued to notch great finish after great finish: a tie for third at the Farr; a second at the Canadian Women’s Open; another second at the year’s final Major, the Women’s British Open; then her second win of the year at the Sime Darby in Malaysia.  Inbee finished the year becoming the first Korean to ever break $2 million in a single season.  She led the tour’s money list and also won the Vare Trophy for low scoring average.

Then came the 2013 season, and amazingly, Inbee got even better!  She started the year by winning her first event of the season, the Honda Thailand, although she was greatly aided when Thai teen star Ariya Jutanugarn made a triple bogey on the final hole to give the win to Inbee as she sat in the clubhouse.  Interestingly, Inbee did not play all that well the next few events, although she did narrowly miss a win in an LET event in China, finishing second there to Suzann Pettersen.  But at the year’s first LPGA Major, Inbee was back and ready to rock.  She went toe-to-toe with new American starlet Lizette Salas in round 3, and by the end of that day, she had a three shot lead on her and a huge lead on the rest of the field.  On Sunday, the two played together, but on the very first hole, Salas faltered and Park carved a huge lead over her and everyone else.  Inbee showed she could play with a big lead, cruising to an easy victory for the second Major title of her career.  She took the traditional dive into Poppie’s Pond, and made sure to save a bottle of water for her father, who had not been able to make the tournament.  A few weeks later, she would dump the water over his head at the swimming pool in Hawaii, allowing him to share in the special winner’s celebration he had only seen on TV.

Inbee celebrates her first Major win of 2013 at the Kraft Nabisco

The Major win moved Inbee to 2nd in the world, and the following week, in which no event was played, the new calculations put her ahead of Stacy Lewis and made her the new world’s #1 player.  Everyone, no less Inbee, was surprised by how quickly she had ascended to the top.  There were a few grumbles that Inbee had benefitted from arcane mathematics to take over the top spot, and many in the American press felt Lewis would quickly usurp Park again.  Inbee, for her part, was not worried.  She was happy to be #1, and hoped to hold on to that spot, but was just going to concentrate on having fun as long as it lasted.  She seemed far less stressed about being the top gun than the past few players who had held that title had been.

Of course, Inbee had reason to be confident: her consistency allowed her to contend frequently.  She finished 4th at the first event she played as #1, then won her third LPGA event of the year (and fifth win in less than a year) at the North Texas LPGA Shootout.  No Korean since Se Ri in her prime has been able to win events at a more rapid pace.

Inbee with another trophy this year, this time in Texas

Inbee traveled to Japan to play in a Major event and injured her hand, which resulted in some unusually poor play from her the next couple of events.  Even so, she remained the top player, and in fact solidified her lead.  And so it was as she entered the year’s second Major.

Inbee, Jiyai Shin and Na Yeon Choi are not only the three top Korean golfers in the world: they also were the defending champs at the three previously played Majors.  The three of them met the press in Rochester to talk about their experiences.  Inbee was asked, as she often is, what makes the Korean ladies so good at golf.  She shrugged and said, jokingly, ‘I think maybe we have dominant blood’.

Maybe she was on to something.  The conditions were tough in Rochester: deep rough, tight fairways, and tons of rain made the course play very hard.  The first day was washed out, and after playing the next two rounds, several Korean golfers sat in the top ten, vying for the crown.  All three of the Korean Major winners were in the hunt on Sunday.  Jiyai wound up tied for 5th, Na Yeon tied for 9th.  Amy Yang, another Korean who excels at Majors, also finished tied for 5th, while up-and-coming young star Chella Choi, playing with Inbee in the final round, notched her own 5th for her best ever Major finish.

Chella Choi had her career best Major finish, a tie for 5th

But it was Inbee Park’s week, and she set several impressive marks in winning her third career Major.  She became the first Korean to ever win the first two Majors in a year, and only the second to win four titles in a year (the record is five, achieved twice by Se Ri Pak).  She now has more Majors than any Korean other than Se Ri, and since the Evian has achieved six LPGA wins.  Her seven total career wins ties her with Na Yeon Choi and puts her behind only Mi Hyun Kim (8), Jiyai Shin (11) and Se Ri Pak (25).

Can Inbee Park do the unthinkable and win the calendar Grand Slam?  Even winning one more Major would make her the only Korean to ever win three in a year.  With the Evian a newly minted Major, it would seem to be harder than ever to win them all.  In Inbee’s favor, besides her love of Majors and great consistency, is that she has already won a US Women’s Open and Evian title, and finished as high as second at the British.  She knows she can compete at these events.  But if she really gets into the heat on Sunday at the Open, how will she handle the unprecedented pressure?  Hopefully we’ll get a chance to find out!

Win the Slam or not, Inbee Park has firmly established herself as the top gun on the ladies tour.  It should be quite a ride to see how much more she can accomplish in the months and years ahead!

Inbee gives the fans her winning game ball from the LPGA Championship

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