How Inbee Park Could Climb The Ladder In Golf History
Inbee Park lives much of the year in the United States but last week was in her native South Korea. In that crowded, compact country, working on your game isn't convenient even for the world's top-ranked female golfer. Unlike in the U.S., most Korean courses -- even the best ones -- don't offer expansive, secluded practice ranges where a superstar can hone her skills in peace.
"It's not that easy to practice in Korea, and I don't practice as much because of the situation," Park said in a telephone interview from her homeland. "I have to go to an actual driving range. There are a lot of people who want to get autographs and take photos with me. When I go there, it gets a little chaotic."
That makes the atmosphere very much at odds with the vibe Park exudes under pressure in major championships, picking off victories with the calm of a fly fisherman casting effortlessly in a favorite stream. Going into this week's Evian Championship in Evian-les-Bains, France, Park has won six of the past 14 majors and had top-10 finishes in three others.
A victory in France -- where she won three years ago before the event was designated a major, breaking a long LPGA drought and beginning her stretch of remarkable play -- would give Park the Super Career Grand Slam (five different major titles) and a second season in three years with three major victories.
With Inbee everything is just so calm and serene, it is a joy to watch.That's what is going to win her a lot more majors, that demeanor.Pat Bradley
"With Inbee, everything is just so calm and serene, it is a joy to watch," said Pat Bradley, who in 1986 was the last woman to win three majors in a season until Park did it in 2013. "That's what is going to win her a lot more majors, that demeanor."
In outplaying Sei Young Kim in a tight Sunday duel at the newly named KPMG Women's PGA in June, Park won the event, formerly the LPGA Championship, for the third straight year, something only Annika Sorenstam had done. By shooting a 65 at Trump Turnberry in the final round of the Ricoh Women's British Open seven weeks later, Park rallied for her seventh major title to complete the Career Grand Slam.
Only six women -- Patty Berg (15), Mickey Wright (13), Louise Suggs (11), Sorenstam and Babe Didrikson Zaharias (10), and Betsy Rawls (eight) -- have won more major championships than the 27-year-old Park, whose major haul accounts for almost 50 percent of her 16 LPGA victories.
"She's certainly on a high," said Sorenstam. "She's been amazing the last few years when it comes to majors the way she steps up her game. She does win a few others, but it's really the majors where she is contending almost every time. It's more than impressive because the courses are different and it's throughout the year."
Park's dominance in the big events is all the more striking because of what happened after she won her first major title, the 2008 U.S. Women's Open, at the record age of 19 years, 11 months, 17 days. Park went four years before she won again on the LPGA Tour, the Evian Championship in the summer of 2012.
"Because she played at the 2008 U.S. Open a lot like she does now, I think people thought greatness was coming then, but she disappeared to the point that she thought very seriously about quitting," said Hall of Famer and television analyst Judy Rankin. "When she finally did win at Evian, she told me, 'I really didn't think I would ever win again.' It was such a game-changer when she won there, playing as well as she did and putting like a magician. That was the first clue that something was coming, but when you think about how she's played on the biggest stages and hardest courses, it's completely amazing."
Park hasn't put the struggles that preceded that career-righting win in France out of her mind. "I always try to look back to the hard times I had," she said. "I never try to forget that. It still feels like yesterday that I went through them. I totally remember how I felt. I am feeling good and having good results, but I try not to get too cocky and to stay humble. When I think about those low moments, I can appreciate what is happening right now."
To get to this point, Park has tweaked her swing the past couple of years with help from her husband and coach, Gi Hyeob Nam, for more consistent ballstriking. The pair kept her distinctive lift-up, lazy-as-a-porch-swing backswing while adjusting her move through the ball. "I didn't really know how to release the club," Park said. "It's hard to explain in a couple of sentences."
Sorenstam believes Park demonstrated her high golf IQ by not radically tinkering with the essence of her swing to chase more distance.
"I don't see any major changes," Sorenstam said. "I like that she is only fine-tuning it to make it better rather than totally revamping it. Some people start messing around too much and it hurts them. Optimizing what you have is key. She doesn't look at other players and say, 'I'm not long enough.' She says, 'I have my tools and this is what I do.'"
One of Park's best assets is her putting, a strength since her father, Gun Gyu Park, introduced her to golf when she was a girl. "My dad was a single-handicap golfer and a great putter, the best I've ever seen at speed control," she said. "He had a weird stroke, but he put the ball in the hole. That's all that matters, isn't it? He taught me how to read the greens. My putter has been a natural thing for me since I started out."
When Park has a putter in her hands, it reminds Bradley of Nancy Lopez, one of the best ever on the greens. "I never saw Nancy miss a putt she really needed," Bradley said.
Sorenstam, whose ballstriking was generally better than her putting during her fabulous 72-win LPGA career, said of Park: "She's an exceptional putter. We all know that's when you get things done."
Golf's best players, whether Sorenstam or earlier dominant stars, are loaded with valuable intangibles that are harder to obtain than a repeating swing or a smooth stroke. Park is no different.
"They seem to know how to prepare, they want it badly from the first shot, don't lose sight of their goals and they don't get frustrated," Rankin said. "With all the greats, that seems to be what they can do that not all of us can do."
Park relishes competing, her confidence supported by her successes and her equanimity stemming in part from a realism about the sport's hard truth.
"I think every player ranked in the top 10 thinks if you can play your game, if you play the way you practiced and prepared, you're going to be the player to beat," Park said. "Golf is tough, but it's hard to beat somebody who really enjoys the game instead of just playing golf because it's your job. I'm lucky to be doing what I want to do and I love to do. I thought in 2013 how fun this game is. The last two years it has just gotten better and better."
The major triumphs have come more rapidly than Park thought they would. Her last goal was to win the Women's British and complete a career Slam. "I didn't really have a next goal," she said, "because I thought that one might take a couple of years, if not more. Winning the British Open was huge."
Of the half-dozen female golfers with more major success than Park, only Sorenstam played in the past four decades. "Right now, it's a question of will the other girls step up," Sorenstam said of Park's competition. "Inbee goes into majors knowing she can win. That's half the battle."
"I never really had a goal for how many majors I wanted to win," Park said. "This is always where I wanted to be, but it's tough to think that everything is going to work how you dreamed of it. Being able to look up to legendary players like Annika is so much of an honor for me. It's great that I get to look up to somebody and have an inspiration. The most important thing is to have a motivation. My next goal will be leaving my name in the history of golf."
It is already there. The only questions are how tall the letters and how bold the type.