Inbee Park captivated golf fans

NAPLES, Fla. -- Yani Tseng being the No. 1 women's golfer in the world seems more like five years ago than less than a year. That alone tells you it was an eventful 2013 on the LPGA Tour.

Three players had the top spot during the calendar year -- Taiwan's Tseng, American Stacy Lewis and South Korea's Inbee Park -- and a fourth, Norway's Suzann Pettersen, challenged for it.

AP Photo/Naples Daily News, Corey Perrine

The LPGA’s season ended with Shanshan Feng winning the CME Group Titleholders and a hefty $700,000 paycheck.

But mostly, that perch belonged to the naturally shy, always even-tempered Park, who came into her own as a golfer and a person in 2013. She became not just the No. 1 player, but the No. 1 story in the LPGA, with her run at a Grand Slam bringing attention to the tour that, frankly, it doesn't receive in the average year.

The season officially came to an end Sunday here at Tiburon Golf Club, with China's Shanshan Feng winning the CME Group Titleholders and, at 24, sending a message that she could be in the hunt for No. 1 in the future. (Tseng, by the way, has dropped to 29th.)

Park and Pettersen topped $2 million in prize money this season, and Lewis came about $60,000 short of that. There were five countries represented among the top 10 on the money list, which included Americans Lewis and Lexi Thompson.

Lewis, 28, also became the first U.S. player since Beth Daniel in 1994 to win the Vare Trophy, given to the player with the lowest stroke average for a season. Lewis (69.484) edged Pettersen (69.696) and Park (69.869), marking the first time in LPGA history that three players finished a season with a scoring average under 70.

The player of the year award was wrapped up even before the last tournament; that went to Park. But the rookie of the year honor wasn't completely secured until Sunday, when Thailand's Moriya Jutanugarn finished tied for 33rd. That gave her a one-point edge over Germany's Caroline Masson for the award.

Now the players will mostly focus on getting some rest until practice begins again in earnest for the 2014 season -- although some will take part in a few non-LPGA events overseas. Next season starts in the Bahamas on Jan. 23-26.

What will we take away from 2013? Here are a few things that will stick with me about this LPGA season.

The inner Inbee

If there is one thing I wish translated better on television, it's Park's personality. Yes, she really does have one, and it's that of a kind soul.

"Oh, I don't think she's ever mad," Feng said of Park.

Park was thrust into a spotlight that is not her comfort zone, to say the least. But she couldn't avoid it after winning the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the LPGA Championship and the U.S. Women's Open this year. She fell short at the Women's British Open in August, but said her memories of 2013 will always be very special.

I might not get the opportunity I had this year ever again in my golfing career. So it will be memorized in my head forever, that's for sure.
Inbee Park

"I might not get the opportunity I had this year ever again in my golfing career," Park said. "So it will be memorized in my head forever, that's for sure."

Park gave a touching speech Friday at the year-end awards banquet in which she thanked Pettersen and Lewis for pushing her with their good play, her family and fiance for their support, and her caddie for his expertise and friendship.

Park also acknowledged how hard it has been to get used to "all the eyes" on her, especially English-speaking media in large news conferences. But she's become very fluent and fully understands that engaging in English is just part of the job.

When you talk to Park in person, she makes eye contact, has a sense of humor and is a really likable young woman. You appreciate how much she's had to work at things other than golf to be in the position she is. You'd like for everyone to see the real person.

And Park said giving the player-of-the-year speech wasn't nearly as nerve-wracking as she thought it would be.

"I really enjoyed my time being up there and sharing the moment that I had this year with a lot of people," she said.

Stunning Saturday at Solheim Cup

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A stunning Saturday afternoon sweep helped propel the Europeans to their first Solheim Cup victory on U.S. soil.

On paper, the U.S. team was far and away a more accomplished group of golfers than its European counterpart. And the lineups for the Saturday afternoon four-ball competition at Colorado Golf Club in August didn't even seem fair.

The Americans in that session had a combined 36 LPGA wins; the Europeans had four. Europe was sitting its three most experienced players, including Pettersen, that afternoon. But what happened? A European sweep, giving the visitors an all-but-unreachable lead going into the final day.

The Euros never let up Sunday and finished with a dominant 18-10 triumph, their first on U.S. soil. This was almost as much a career signature for Pettersen as any individual title she'd won. And it helped propel her to a strong latter portion of the season, which included her second major title, the Evian Championship.

What's in a name?

Speaking of the Evian, that event in France, long a player favorite for its large purse and first-class atmosphere, was elevated to major status beginning this year.

Of course, the LPGA could not have guessed anyone would be in position to win four majors in a row -- the traditional Grand Slam -- in the first year the tour instead had five majors.

The LPGA wasn't sure what to call Park's potential feat had she won the Women's British Open. Could it still be a Grand Slam if one more major remained? And if the answer was yes -- since a Grand Slam traditionally refers to four tournaments -- would Park have been going for something else if she'd entered Evian with four major victories in a row?

Well here's a suggestion, not that we anticipate many years when a player will be in this position. If someone wins four majors in a row, that is indeed a Grand Slam. If she wins five majors in a row, it's a Pentagram Slam. (Hey, it might catch on.)

Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

The dynamics will change for Lydia Ko, as the 16-year-old played as a pro for the first time in the season-ending event.

Then again, what will it be called if someone wins four of five majors, but they're not consecutive? Um … we'll just call that amazing, I guess.

Ko's journey

New Zealand's Lydia Ko is only 16 but has been playing golf at a high level for quite a while. She had two LPGA titles already and a runner-up finish at a major while still an amateur, so there was really no doubt she had to go pro.

But it means an even more hectic, stressful lifestyle for the teenager. It can be done; several other teens, including Thompson, have done it. Still, watching Ko play her first professional event last week was a reminder that having enormous talent at a young age comes with its own price: an early entry into the adult world. You hope that Ko is still able to enjoy her youth as much as possible.

Lewis' history lessons

The Vare Trophy is named for 1920s golf legend Glenna Collett Vare, which is something Lewis knows. That's because she has made a point of learning LPGA history, which is appreciated by her predecessors.

"It's great to see a younger player that wants to know the history," said Daniel, who was here at Tiburon on Sunday for the presentation of the Vare Trophy to Lewis. "Because I don't know that we do the greatest job on the LPGA of supporting our history or recognizing it. I think you need to do that with every generation, to know what went on with each one. It's the only way you can learn and grow as an organization."

Daniel, who was an intense competitor in her time, also appreciates Lewis' similar personality on the course.

"She reminds me of myself a lot," Daniel said, smiling. "I think that's why we relate to each other; I kind of understand her. She had a tendency to listen to me a little bit, because she recognizes I was a lot like her. She's a perfectionist, and I was the same way."

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