Inbee Park's start: good, not great

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- With Inbee Park, you watch for the little things. The very little things.

A small swing of the club in disappointment after a wayward drive. A slight pursing of the lips. A minuscule furrowing of the brow.

It takes an extremely sensitive Richter scale to measure whatever fluctuating emotions the world's No. 1 female golfer may be feeling on the course.

So when Park referred to her 3-under-par opening round of 69 at the Women's British Open as "like a roller coaster," we need to explain. You know those kiddie roller coasters? The ones with hills about 5 feet high? That's essentially what we're talking about. Not the skyscraper kind where your stomach practically leaps out of your mouth.

Sure, Park had some peaks and valleys Thursday in a round that began just after 7 a.m. local time. By the time the opening day ended -- after 8 p.m. -- she was three shots off the lead in a group of 20 players tied for 18th.

A lot of Park's peaks were on the front nine, as she got off to a blazing start in her quest for a fourth major championship in a row.

She birdied Nos. 1, 3, 4, 6 and 8. Grand Slam pressure? Enormous butterflies? Debilitating nerves? Huh? It was just Park in tournament mode. What else did we expect?

With another birdie on No. 10, she was at 6 under, and it looked as if the overcast skies blanketing the Old Course were going to provide Park her own personal sunshine. Except …

Golf tournaments take a long time to win. Patience is a virtue. Sometimes you have to take your medicine. You name the golf cliché. Starting with a troublesome drive on No. 12, Park was about to get into the valleys of her round.

"She lost her swing a little bit; that's all it comes down to," said her longtime caddie, Brad Beecher. "She appeared fine; it was a great start. That tee shot on 12 just spooked her."

That's the kind of place St. Andrews is, though; it has its share of ghosts. Or at least it feels that way. So much in the history of golf has happened here, you know it's a bit haunted.

Park is trying to make her own history with a calendar year Grand Slam, but that's an accomplishment that happens shot to shot. And a few of those got away from her on the back nine.

No. 12 here -- called "Heathery" -- is where the golfers head back in the direction of the town and can see the finish small and far in the distance. It's a long way in, and Park struggled getting home.

Her first bogey came on No. 13 after an errant drive onto the top of a small hill. She hadn't been particularly pleased with how she was driving the ball in the LPGA's two events since the U.S. Women's Open, which she won on June 30.

"I thought I fixed all of my problems coming into this week," Park said. "I was hitting it so good in the practice round. I thought I was really prepared and really ready, but those couple of bad shots really shocked me. I wanted to fix them right away and couldn't really concentrate on the greens."

The greens always have been where Park is most at home, putting whiz that she is. But she readily acknowledged that her focus got somewhat blurry, because her mind was so much on what was going wrong on the tee.

Park has explained that her mental coach, Sookyung Cho, has helped her to home in on one or two things a round that she's most concerned about. In this case, she said she lost some of her concentration.

David Cannon/Getty Images

Inbee Park three-putted two holes in a row on the back nine; even she couldn’t remember the last time she did that.

Still, Park scrambled well enough to make pars on Nos. 14 and 15, including an expert pitch shot to about 1½ feet on the latter hole. Things got difficult on 16 with another tee shot into the rough, then a second shot into the bunker on the left side of the hole.

It was a tweener position; she could go for the pin but she might hit the lip of the bunker and be in a terrible pickle. At first, Park was feeling aggressive and wanted to try it.

Beecher wasn't in favor of that, and Park said his concern changed her mind.

"When you doubt yourself, you can't get out of these bunkers," she said. "Once doubt gets into your mind, I wasn't trying for that."

Instead, she decided to play for a "smart" bogey, hitting out to the left, away from the hole. It was the correct decision, but once on the green, she 3-putted for double-bogey.

Park kept her cool, which admittedly is like saying the sky continued to stay up. She hit a solid drive on No. 17, the Road Hole, and got her second shot onto the enormous green, but then 3-putted from there for bogey.

Asked if she remembered the last time she 3-putted two holes in a row, Park chuckled and said she didn't. Then again, she pointed out, these are St. Andrews greens.

"You have to be prepared for 3-putts here," she said. "You're always going to have them."

The bogey on 17 took her to 2 under, but she was still able to put a positive closing note on the round with an 8-foot birdie on the final hole.

Great job? No. Good enough? Yes.

Park talked about learning things from the round and how she was glad to have gotten it out of the way. She felt fortunate to have teed off this quest for golf immortality so early in the morning. There weren't that many people at the course yet, and that helped her feel the inevitable nerves less.

As the round went on, the gallery following her got bigger. A Scottish reporter asked her afterward if she could feel the crowd was pulling for her. Park's English is very good. But even native English speakers can be confused by the Scots. His "crowd" sounded -- at least to an American -- like "crude" or "croad" or something in between.

"Uh, who?" Park said, and then everyone in the media room laughed with her. Then she understood the question.

"I felt like everybody was rooting for me," she said. "That was such a nice feeling to have. Especially when you're far away from your home, and a lot of people are cheering for you and wishing you luck. That's really sweet."

The sour parts of the first round, Park said, are best to have happened Thursday. Three more days to go.

"It could have been better," she said. "But it's OK."

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