Inbee Park aims for elusive title
SOUTHPORT, England -- A year late and a day after her 26th birthday, Inbee Park has the opportunity to give herself the perfect present Sunday -- a career Grand Slam.
Celebrations were on hold Saturday night, but it already had been a pretty fine day as a 68 in the third round of the Women's British Open gave Park a 1-stroke lead at 4 under par.
For the former world No. 1, this year at Royal Birkdale has been a complete contrast to last year's British Open at St. Andrews, where she showed up having won the first three majors of the year. This time, with all the attention on defending champion Stacy Lewis -- who dethroned Park at the top of the Rolex Rankings earlier this year -- and U.S. Women's Open winner Michelle Wie, Park has been a low-profile presence until popping up at the top of the leaderboard with a round to play.
I feel this tournament owes me. To get the [career] Grand Slam would be a dream come true and the best birthday present.Inbee Park
Her opportunity to record a fourth successive major victory disappeared at St. Andrews last year, but, in terms of a career Grand Slam, Park needs just the British Open to become the seventh woman with a set of four different majors.
With the LPGA's majors changing over the years, however, the detail is a little complex. Louise Suggs was the first to win four different majors, followed by Mickey Wright, Pat Bradley, Juli Inkster, Karrie Webb and, most recently, Annika Sorenstam. The last two are the only ones to have the configuration with the British Open in it, the title Park is missing.
Webb also has what is called a "Super Grand Slam" as the Australian also won the old du Maurier tournament. Now that there is a fifth major on the LPGA Tour, the Evian Championship, Park might also have to win in France to make her slam super. However, she always can claim she won the old Evian Masters, as the event was called before gaining major status last year.
If that is all a little too complicated, in Park's mind it is simple. "I feel this tournament owes me," she said. "To get the Grand Slam would be a dream come true and the best birthday present."
Park did not have the day's headlines to herself even if her superb play deserved them. First there was 18-year-old English hopeful Charley Hull posting the best round of the week with a 66 -- and dusting Kraft Nabisco champion Lexi Thompson by 12 strokes in the process.
Then came Park's South Korean compatriot Sun-Ju Ahn, who made three birdies in four holes on the back nine to take the lead at 5 under par. But in the process of making a par at the last hole, Ahn contravened the rule about building a stance in a bunker and was penalized 2 strokes. The double-bogey left Ahn tied for second at 3 under par alongside Suzann Pettersen and Shanshan Feng.
With overnight leader Mo Martin falling away with a 77, a host of strong contenders have packed the leaderboard, led by Park and including fellow major winners Pettersen and Feng, plus Lewis and So Yeon Ryu only 3 behind at 1 under par, the mark Hull reached after jumping from tied for 51st to seventh.
But no one in contention has won more than Park's four major titles, and suddenly her career Grand Slam dreams are within reach.
After two days here, Park was at level par and, if not entirely comfortable with her game, at least the draw has not favored one half of the field -- the morning or afternoon group -- as it did to her detriment last year.
On Saturday, when the conditions were again on the benign side with only a little rain late in the day, Park played virtually error-free from tee to green.
"I hit every fairway and every green, so that gives me a lot of confidence for tomorrow," she said.
The start to her round was sublime. Over the toughest stretch of the course, she birdied the first two holes and four of the first six. "With that start, you can't mess it up after that," she said.
In fact, her only two bogeys came from three-putting, and there was a miss from short range on the 18th hole that meant a par instead of another birdie. At the time, it looked as if it would deny her a share of the lead, but in the end it was the difference between a 1- and a 2-stroke buffer.
It was also a reminder of her relative weakness this year, certainly compared with last season, when virtually every putt she looked at went in.
"Maybe my standards are too high," she said. "I was not used to missing and so, when I started missing, I got too frustrated with myself."
Her answer was to change putters. She is trying a new one again this week but has gone through two or three others since retiring her wonder blade that brought three majors in 2013. That one is safely at home.
"I like to try different putters when it's not working, refresh my mind," she said. "Nothing's wrong with the putter, but it's been a struggle this year. I just wanted to have something new and fresh."
New and fresh also sums up the difference between Park at this year's British Open compared with last year, when she started strong but finished tied for 42nd. "Last year I enjoyed having the pressure and experiencing something I had never experienced before.
"But if I end up winning tomorrow, I'll definitely enjoy this year better."