U.S. Women's Open winner Sung Hyun Park's time comes sooner rather than later
BEDMINSTER, N.J. -- Around the LPGA Tour for a while now, the opinion has been as prevalent as sun sleeves and hybrid clubs. Sung Hyun Park was going to win, sooner rather than later.
"Her nickname on tour is 'Tiger Woods,'" said her caddie, David Jones. "That kind of says it all."
Not to go overboard about a 23-year-old South Korean who just won her first tournament outside of Asia, but that tournament was the U.S. Women's Open, by two strokes over her younger countrywoman Hye-Jin Choi, 17. And Park, whose golf swing is as pretty as it is powerful, had a weekend at Trump National Bedminster that a winning-most-of-time Woods would claim in a second, rounds of 67-67 that allowed her make up a seven-stroke deficit after 36 holes.
"To be honest with you," Park said Sunday through a translator, "I still can't believe that it is actually happening. It almost feels like I'm floating on a cloud in the sky."
It was an opposite scenario from Park's debut U.S. Women's Open at CordeValle in California last year, where she led after two rounds but could not close the deal and tied for third, one stroke out of a playoff.
"She's the real deal, there's no doubt about that," Jeff King, her caddie that week, said then. "You'll see her again."
So we did, with Park joining the LPGA after a seven-win 2016 season on the LPGA of Korea Tour, where she has 10 career titles. Park hadn't won an LPGA event when she arrived in New Jersey, but she had four top-four finishes and, more importantly, had left the KPMG Women's PGA Championship two weeks ago determined to shore up her short game, the only minor liability lurking in her major potential.
"Fans in Korea know about this, my issue with the short game," Park said.
Park spent the time between majors at work on her chipping, and when Jones saw her early in the week at Trump National, he saw a big difference.
"I told [Fox analyst] Juli Inkster, 'She's learned to chip,'" Jones said. "Her biggest strength is that she picks up things so quickly. She's just a naturally good athlete, and when she makes a change, she grasps it very, very fast."
While Park has a dynamic swing the way Woods did in his dominant days, she imitated him in another way during the first round -- thanks to her newfound confidence around the greens -- limiting the damage on an off day.
"She played as bad as I've ever seen her on Thursday," Jones said. "She was nothing short of horrendous. The difference was the chipping: She turned a 77 into a 73 and stayed in the tournament. I think that's where the tournament was won or lost."
Park is the seventh player from the Republic of Korea to win the U.S. Women's Open in the past 10 years, but her style -- bold, capitalizing her length -- is different from most of the fellow pros from her homeland who are the epitome of steady and methodical. Her other nickname is "Dak Gong."
"Made-up word, but [means] literally, just shut your mouth and attack," Park said. "[Unlike] a lot of Korean female golfers, I guess I am more aggressive in my play. So fans gave me that nickname because I just focus and attack and am aggressive. That's how it probably came to be. And I'm happy for it."
Taking advantage of shorter irons than Choi or China's Shanshan Feng -- the third-round leader who shot 75 to share fifth place -- Park worked her way into a three-way tie for the lead with a birdie at No. 12. A birdie at the 15th briefly put her alone at the top, but Choi, in the pairing behind, responded with a 4 of her own at the par 3.
Choi sank her hopes with a watery double-bogey on the par-3 16th. Feng remained one back until Park gave herself a two-stroke advantage by holing a 6-footer for birdie on No. 17. On the par-5 18th, Park put herself in a spot of possible bother by overshooting the green on her third shot, leaving a dicey 45 feet up a slope then down toward a water hazard. It was the kind of predicament that could have overwhelmed someone new to such pressure.
"I was standing back, thinking to myself that this is the one that could change her outlook on her chipping," Jones said. "It's easy in practice, it's a little bit more difficult in competition and it's the toughest you could actually have when it actually means something. The acid test was doing it under pressure."
Her 45-foot chip bounced into the bank and one-hopped onto the putting surface, releasing with just the right pace to settle 18 inches from the flagstick.
"When I was approaching the fourth shot, my mind went completely blank," Park said later, "but I remembered to stick with how I usually play, because it was part of my practice. And I stuck with it and did it."
All that was left was to walk past President Donald Trump, who was in a private viewing stand and applauded the last couple of pairings as they made their way to sign their scorecards. Park had seen the president on Saturday as she played No. 15, but she didn't notice him Sunday.
"All I was focusing on was capturing a birdie," Park said.
Then it was time for an emotional meeting with her mother, Keum Ja Lee, whom she hugged as the two stood on opposite sides of a metal barrier, each shedding tears.
"Up until that moment that I saw my mother, I really couldn't feel that it was really happening," Park said. "She stood right in front of me and said, 'I am so proud of you, Sung Hyun.' At that moment, it really dawned on me, I guess I really won the championship."
Park did so with an assist from Jones. Like 2017 U.S. Open winner Brooks Koepka's caddie, Ricky Elliott, Jones went to the University of Toledo. There he roomed with Elliott, who, like Jones, is from Northern Ireland.
"Particularly today, my caddie had a great role helping me stay focused," Park said. "Whenever I was slightly shaken, he would tell small jokes or assure me with a pep talk."
Jones, who has previously caddied for Na Yeon Choi and worked for In Gee Chun when she won the Evian Championship last year, started caddying for Park two months ago.
"On the surface she's very shy, but at the core she's very strong-minded," Jones said. "She's not scared to make a decision. She has a backbone."
Indeed, during a week when a lot of people were eager for a peek of the president, the most visible thing at Trump Bedminister was the talent Park displayed: unflappable, wonderful golf. She has a couple of nicknames, but it seems like only one path: onward and upward.