Inbee Park finding her balance -- and the joy -- in golf again
RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. -- It would be easy, but erroneous, to discount the impact of Inbee Park.
After all, she's not the tallest, strongest, most athletic or longest-hitting player on the LPGA Tour. She averages about 253 yards off the tee, and her swing is slow and methodical -- seemingly lacking in the power it takes to win tournaments.
She is quiet and understated and in recent years admits she has grown more comfortable being away from the demands required of the world's top-ranked player -- a spot she has occupied for great stretches of her 11-year LPGA career.
"I sometimes like being a little bit under the radar and nobody pays big attention to me," said Park, 29, who carded a 2-under 70 in Thursday's first round of the ANA Inspiration and is five shots behind leader Pernilla Lindberg of Sweden.
"It has been a little bit different this year ... being a little off the pressure and just trying to play golf," added the South Korean.
Owner of 19 career LPGA wins, including seven major championships, Park doesn't exude confidence like many other top performers on the tour. In spite of regular birdie buffets with her putter, Park's competitive repertoire lacks fist-pumps or celebratory outbursts on the greens.
Even when friends rush in to celebrate her wins with a shower of beverages, Park usually bows her head, smiles and lets the chosen liquid roll off her back.
That seems remarkably fitting for a player who has long ignored the doubters and likely privately laughed at the folly of being counted out.
But when asked if she was offended by being underestimated, Park said, "Sometimes I doubt myself, and I get surprised, as well."
Tournament after tournament, Park's metronome backswing has kept her in the fairway while the big hitters thrashed in the hay. And time after time, she has made difficult putts look simple and championships perfunctory.
But it hasn't always been that way. Park turned professional at 17 after a highly successful amateur career. On what is now the Symetra Tour, she missed the cut in her pro debut and never won a tournament in 2006 but earned 2007 LPGA membership by finishing third on the pipeline tour's season money list with 11 top-10 finishes, including five in the top three.
Her 2007 LPGA rookie season reflected an adjustment period for the then-teen, but she showed a new comfort with her first win as an LPGA Tour member at the 2008 U.S. Women's Open.
Park experienced a winless stretch from 2009 to 2011 but reemerged in 2012 with two wins, 10 more top-10 finishes -- including six as runner-up -- and captured the tour's Vare Trophy for low scoring average.
Park redirected her own high standards in 2013, recording six wins with three major championships -- the Kraft Nabisco, Wegmans LPGA and another U.S. Women's Open.
She added three more wins and another major in 2014 and came close to appearing gaudy in 2015, when she completed the career grand slam with victories at the KPMG Women's PGA Championship and Ricoh Women's British Open, posting a total of five wins and 10 additional top-10s that year.
"It's just a confidence level," she explained to media earlier this week at her news conference leading into the ANA Inspiration. "I wish I could get that every week, every day."
Then it happened.
Painful back and thumb injuries sidelined Park in 2016 and made golf challenging for the first time in her life. She wasn't having fun, and it showed in her results.
The mighty Queen Bee, as headlines have tagged her, played in 10 LPGA tournaments, missed two cuts and was forced to withdraw three times in 2016. She managed only one top-10 finish that year as runner-up at the Kia Classic.
The 2016 season was also an Olympic year, and for the first time since 1904, golf had returned as a medal sport. With so many options for world-ranked players, South Korean officials felt confident their players would medal. Even though Park's world ranking would have qualified her to represent her homeland, surely, they reasoned, she would miss the Olympics due to injury.
Even members of the Korean media urged the injured player to step aside and give her spot to one of her healthy compatriots who could potentially medal. After all, they noted, she had not broken 70 since March that year.
But count out Inbee Park? Never uttering a word about pain, Park won the women's gold medal at the Rio Games, defeating then-top-ranked Lydia Ko by five shots.
"There was nothing guaranteed because I haven't played that well this season," Park said after her 2016 gold-medal performance, admitting that her thumb was "80 percent fit" as she entered the event.
That same year in 2016, with no season LPGA wins, the 27-year-old Park became the youngest player in history to qualify for the LPGA's Hall of Fame. It was the crown on top of Park's royal career record.
Even back in 2014, when Park married her swing coach, Gi Hyeob Nam, and said they hoped to start a family someday, many thought Park's priorities would shift from competitive golf on a global schedule to spending more time at home in South Korea. Some wondered if, after so much success, she would simply retire and return home to stay.
There was also the concern that Nam would tinker with the tools that made Park the low-key world-beater she had become. But instead, Park said he has recognized her strengths and reinforced them.
"My husband said to me that I have consistent rhythm," Park said. "He remembers what my good stroke was, so he always tries to repeat that. When I'm a little bit off, he gets me back on track."
Park won only once last year and didn't start her 2018 season until March at the HSBC Women's World Championship, where she tied for 31st.
But she answered that lackluster performance with a win at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup two weeks ago, bringing some momentum into Mission Hills Country Club this week for the ANA Inspiration, which she won in 2013.
With little left to prove in a career already packed with rewards, Park smiled when asked by media what she still wanted to accomplish.
"I know I want to perform good, but there is no pressure for it [now]," said Park, world-ranked No. 9 and playing this week at Mission Hills for the 12th year. "I should be really ready to enjoy tournament golf.
"I'm just trying to find that balance so I enjoy golf a little bit more," she added. "If I want to play for a long time from now ... I have to enjoy golf, whether I play good or bad."