Inbee Park is the Story of the Year in Women’s Golf

Inbee Park is the Story of the Year in Women’s Golf

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 In the game of golf, it’s not just how you handle your club, it’s how you handle yourself. In 2013, Inbee Park epitomized that statement.

“Very low key,” Brittany Lincicome, one of the longest drivers in women’s golf, characterized Park. “She goes with the flow, and that’s what you need out here.”

“The way she plays the game, it’s so steady,” said Paula Creamer, the 2010 U.S. Women’s Open champion.

“You would think, after winning two of them, it would faze her a little bit,” said Stacy Lewis, whom Park replaced as the No. 1 women’s professional golfer in the world this past April. “But obviously at [this year’s] U.S. Open, it didn’t. Inbee is playing so good this year, and she’s so steady. You wouldn’t know whether she’s winning a tournament or whether she’s losing it, and that’s what you need in a major. As a player, you’d like to know if she’s human, to see if she actually feels the nerves like the rest of us do.”

Park is, in fact, human. She’s also quite a remarkable athlete. She captured the attention of the world with her phenomenal performance this year—winning a stunning three consecutive majors at the start of the season. That achievement is matched only by the legendary Babe Zaharias, who reached this feat in 1950.

“Trying to put my name next to hers means just so much,” Park said, after this year’s U.S. Open win that tied the record. “I would think I would never get there; it’s somewhere that I’ve never dreamed of. But all of a sudden, I’m there.”

In the past 16 months, Park has won eight LPGA titles. This year alone, she has won six times—half of them at majors—and amassed more than $2 million in prize money.

But, again, she’s human. And when the eyes of the world focused on the 25-year-old “Silent Assassin” from South Korea, as she launched her bid to make golfing history and become the first person to win four professional majors in a single season, she showed that her nerves aren’t made of steel and that her stellar signature putting isn’t infallible. She had two chances to nab a fourth major, at the Women’s British Open in August and at the Evian Championship last month, but fell short on both occasions.

In the lead-up to the tournaments, the media build-up around Park’s potential history making was incredible.

Having won her first major at age 19, Park is no stranger in the LPGA. But it was not until this year that she has shown the golf world what she’s capable of on a consistent basis. More than that, after the U.S. Open victory, suddenly, women’s golf—which has long struggled to match the popularity of the PGA—was making headlines.

Lots of them:

“Inbee Park on Verge of Golfing Immortality,” speculated CNN.

“Inbee Park Lines Up Her Grand Slam,” wrote the New York Times.

“Golf’s Queen of Serene,” the Wall Street Journal dubbed her.

“It’s been great for women’s golf, what Inbee has done this year,” said Lewis, the 2012 Rolex Player of the Year. “It’s good to see she’s finally getting the attention she deserves.”

Only Tiger Woods and Mickey Wright have held four professional majors at the same time, though they were accomplished over two seasons.

“It’s pretty incredible to win the first three,” Woods said, also from the Bridgestone Invitational. “And the way she did it … executing, and it seemed like she just is making everything….It’s really neat to see someone out there doing something that no one has ever done, so that’s pretty cool.”

At the Women’s Canadian Open in August, KoreAm asked Park why she thinks this has been such a banner year for her. “I don’t really have a good answer for that,” she said. “It just clicked.

“I learned a lot from finishing second many times last year,” she also said. “So after that kind of experience, this year when I’m in contention, I feel a lot more comfortable, and I have a lot more confidence to win.”

Since April of this year, Park has been the No. 1-ranked player in the Women’s World Golf Rankings, and despite the most recent disappointing outings, she closes out the 2013 season at the very top.

The journey to No. 1 started 15 years ago in Korea, when a 10-year-old Park heard a ruckus in her home one night. The way the story goes, she went downstairs and discovered her father watching Se Ri Pak on TV, as the latter became the first South Korean to win the U.S. Women’s Open.

“Korea was struggling at the time. I know that my dad saw a lot of hope just from watching her play,” Park told the popular South Korean interview show, Healing Camp, last month. “I remember him screaming outside at midnight with our neighbors. That’s when I saw [Pak] play, and I started dreaming of playing golf as well.”

Prior to that, Park said, though her father and grandfather were huge golf fans, she didn’t think it was that fun. But after watching Pak, who would go on to become a Hall of Famer, she was inspired.

Within two years, her mother would take a 12-year-old Inbee and her sister Inah to the United States, so they could both play golf and study at the same time, while their businessman father stayed behind in Korea.

“In the U.S., even if you’re a student-athlete, they’ll never lighten your workload in school classes,” Park explained on Healing Camp. “You have to be in classes until 3, and then only practice for three hours after that. So I’m still not a player who practices a lot. So most Koreans question my amount of practice time, but really, practice is more about quality and less about quantity.”

The move to America paid off early, with Park winning nine tournaments on the American Junior Golf Association circuit and becoming a five-time Rolex Junior All-American. After graduating from Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas in 2006, Park wanted to turn pro, but her request for LPGA permission to attempt to qualify as a 17-year old was denied. Rules require that a player be 18 to join the Tour.

Meanwhile, she received scholarship offers from Harvard and Yale, but didn’t accept either because she wouldn’t have been able to turn pro. Instead, she enrolled at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, close to where she lived. She would soon leave the school, however, to go pro, playing on the Duramed Futures Tour where the age of entry had been lowered to 17.

By 2006, she recorded 11 top-10 finishes on the Futures Tour, finishing third on its season-ending money list, which earned her exempt status on the LPGA Tour for the 2007 season. During her rookie season in the LPGA, she finished 37th on the money list and fourth in the Rookie of the Year standings.

It didn’t take long for her to prove that she should be playing with the pros. In 2008, at age 19, she became the youngest player to win the U.S. Women’s Open. From that point on, she was deemed South Korea’s next rising star. But rise she did not. She struggled through a dry spell, going nearly 18 months without another top-10 finish. In 2009, she ended the season 50th on the LPGA official money list.

Park admitted that marked one of her most difficult periods in her relatively young career.

“I wanted to give up,” she recalled. “Golf was giving me so much stress. I was young then and felt if I weren’t playing golf, my life would be stress-free. Back then, I just couldn’t handle that kind of stress.

“I really thought that I wasn’t ever going to be able to win again.”

But Park would break that winless streak in 2012, scoring her second LPGA title at the Evian Masters (which, this year, was recognized as women’s golf’s fifth major), where she earned a two-shot victory over Stacy Lewis and Karrie Webb. At Evian, Park, known for being one of the finest putters in the game, one-putted 11 greens.

The win also gave Park a much-needed boost of confidence. That year, she would go on to finish in the top three in 9 out of 24 tournaments she played, and topped the LPGA in money earned and scoring average.

Many, including Park, have credited her fiancé, Gi Hyeob Nam, who became her swing coach last year, for her improved game. He noticed she had an erratic swing and helped her fix her early release. The result has been more consistent driving and iron play.

At the Canadian Open in August, Park reflected on her dramatic turnaround.

“I had my bad times after the win at the U.S. Open in 2008, and I wasn’t experienced, or I wasn’t used to the Tour,” she said. “My game was just not ready yet. But over time, I worked on everything very hard, and little by little, it improved, I think, every year.”

That improvement was on full display by this year’s U.S. Women’s Open, held in Southampton, N.Y., in late June. Park was the clear favorite, riding on her victories at the Kraft Nabisco Championship in April and the Wegmans LPGA Championship earlier in June.

And, this time, she did not disappoint. Three South Koreans would, in fact, vie for the title. I.K. Kim would come the closest, chipping into the lead with a birdie on the second hole on the final round, but that was followed by a bogey on the fourth. Though Park would make back-to-back bogeys at four holes, she would cancel them out with birdies. Park would sail to a comfortable win, finishing at 8-under, four strokes ahead of Kim. So Yeon Ryu, the 2011 winner, finished third at 1-under.

“To be honest, yeah, it’s time to win it,” Kim said, after the tournament, speaking of her own desire to clinch her first major. “But I think things have to come naturally, and it’s great to play with Inbee. She’s doing so well. Seeing her doing it, it just makes me want it more.”

After Park made the final putt on 18, Ryu and Na Yeon Choi, last year’s U.S. Women’s Open champ, sprayed Park with champagne. Korean players have notably won six of the last eight majors.

“I think everybody is inspiring each other, and when your friends are playing so good, you want to play as good as them,” said Park. “I think that pressure is really good.”

After Park’s win at the U.S. Open, it seemed all eyes were on her, as everyone from ESPN to NPR to the New York Times was seemingly champing at the bit to hang a fourth, history-making major on her. After all, she had two chances to do that—first at the British Open in August, and then at the Evian in September. But Park encountered some trouble, first, at the British Open.

“I left a lot of shots on the greens,” said Park at the time. “The greens were really tough to judge the speed; they were great one minute, [the next] minute they were slow.”

She would finish two strokes behind Lewis, who would take the trophy. Park later said that she was somewhat relieved the tournament was over, indicating that nerves may have gotten to her.

“Everybody has been watching me,” she said. “It feels a bit weird because I get to do an interview when I shot 6-over par today.

“It’s something I’ve never experienced before. It’s been a great experience. I might not have won this week, but I’ve learned a lot.”

At Evian the following month, Park faltered even more, finishing far out of contention, as Norway’s Suzann Pettersen would pull out the win, but with teenage phenom Lydia Ko, a Korean New Zealander, only two strokes behind her.

And just as quickly as attention swarmed Park, following her historic win at Southampton, it seemed eyes began shifting toward Ko, who, in August, won her second Canadian Open. She’s 16 and still an amateur, so she couldn’t collect the purse, but, already, the bespectacled teen has become the one to watch.

Despite the anti-climatic ending to the season for Park, she’s got plenty to enjoy from 2013—and one senses from her remarks to the media before she failed to clinch a fourth major, that she knows that.

“Whether I win this week, whether I don’t, the last two days, what I experienced was great,” she said just before the British Open. “You know, if I can handle this kind of pressure, if I face this kind of pressure, I’m really not afraid of any kind of pressure from now on in my career.”

The truth is, even without the Grand Slam victory, Park should rest assured that her name will be recorded in the golf history books. In addition to nabbing three in a row and earning the respect of the best golfers in the LPGA and PGA, she—a woman of color, for whom English is a second language, who once joked that she’s got an “athlete’s body”—helped raise the profile of women’s golf in 2013.

That’s a feat that has long eluded the LPGA, which seemed more apt to use sex appeal to try to do that. Park did it just by playing amazing golf, game after game after game.

As for the future, Annika Sorenstam, a three-time U.S. Women’s Open and 10-time major winner, perhaps said it best when she stated on broadcast TV, “[Park] can still improve in some areas, and that’s a scary thought.”

KoreAm’s Julie Ha and Steve Han contributed to this story.