EVIAN-LES-BAINS, France – The LPGA’s new fifth major is Inbee Park’s second chance.
Park’s bid to become the first man or woman to win four professional major championships in a single season didn’t end with her failed try at the Ricoh Women’s British Open last month. Thanks to the Evian Championship’s upgrade to major status this year, Park will get another chance at winning her fourth this season.
With the Evian’s debut as a major this week, Park would relish adding to the history being made here. She arrives renewed and regenerated after falling short under the intense scrutiny that followed her to St. Andrews for the Women’s British Open.
“I don’t feel as much pressure this week as I did at the Women’s British Open,” Park, 25, said Wednesday, “I feel a lot more comfortable. I experienced something so big at St. Andrews, I just feel a lot more comfortable this week.”
Park is feeling healthy, too, after withdrawing from the LPGA's last event, the Safeway Classic, with an intestinal inflammation.
“Four out of five majors would be an amazing thing to achieve,” Park said. “I would really love to win this week, not just because it would be four majors, but because this tournament is a really special week.”
Babe Zaharias (1950), Mickey Wright (1961) and Pat Bradley (1986) won three majors in a single season before Park won the Kraft Nabisco, the Wegmans LPGA Championship and the U.S. Women’s Open to start this year.
Ben Hogan (1953) and Tiger Woods (2000) also claimed three majors in a season.
Park’s already amid some select company, but she moves beyond them all fashioning the best major championship season in professional golf with a victory this week. She sets off to do so with the extra confidence that comes from being the defending champion at Evian.
A year ago, Park held off Stacy Lewis and Karrie Webb to win here by two shots. It was a different course then. Since Park won, the Evian Resort Golf Club has undergone an $8 million renovation. The course will play longer now, with completely different greens featuring more undulation.
Still, Park says Evian’s fond reminders go beyond specific course knowledge.
“This tournament gives me a lot of confidence,” Park said.
That’s because this is where Park broke out of her LPGA doldrums so spectacularly. This is where she got the spark of confidence that led to her sizzling run all the way to No. 1 in the world.
After becoming the youngest player to win the U.S. Women’s Open at 19 in 2008, Park was pegged as South Korea’s next rising star. It didn’t happen. In trying to live up to all the expectations that come with a major, she struggled and then slumped. Park recorded a top-10 the week after her U.S. Women’s Open title, but then went nearly 18 months without another top-10. She struggled through 22 consecutive events without a top-10.
Frustration mounted to the point that Park wasn’t enjoying the game.
“I wanted to give up and do something that wouldn’t give me as much stress,” Park said. “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.”
Evian is where Park finally ended her four-year winless run. It’s where she finally followed up her U.S. Women’s Open breakthrough with a second LPGA title. She went 81 events between those victories.
“I really thought that I wasn’t ever going to be able to win again,” Park said. “Winning Evian gave me the hope of winning again.”
It’s no coincidence Park’s game took off when her fiancé, Gi Hyeob Nam, took over as her swing coach last year. Her driving and iron play was erratic, but Nam helped her fix an early release. She was able to repeat her swing so much more consistently after that. He didn’t have to touch her putting. She has been one of the best putters in the game for a long time.
In the past 14 months, Park has won eight LPGA titles.
She also has won the admiration of her closest rivals.
“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.”
Look through the LPGA stats this season, and Park is atop more categories than any other player. She’s leading the tour in victories (6), Rolex Player of the Year points (281), money winnings ($2,179,877) and putts per GIR (1.726). She’s second in scoring to Lewis.
Through her run, Park has learned to handle the stress she couldn’t handle earlier in her career.
“After winning Kraft this year, I began feeling some pressure, and it built and built,” Park said. “I feel like pressure is my friend now.”