Park opens with 67 in quest for third straight major


SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – That Inbee Park’s name will hit a leaderboard isn’t as certain as death and taxes, but it’s getting close.

She won the first two major championships of this year, and with a 5-under-par 67 Thursday she finished one shot off the lead at the U.S. Women’s Open in a bid to become the first player in six decades to win the first three majors of the women’s season.

Park, who has won five times in 2013, including the last two LPGA events, carded six birdies and a bogey. She trails fellow South Korean Ha-Neul Kim, who fired a bogey-free 66.

“I do have a lot of confidence in myself at the moment,” Park said. “The way I'm playing, the way things have been going, the way I've been getting the luck, I think I am in the zone. I've been playing my best in my career at the moment. I really just want to enjoy the moment.”

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Babe Zaharias won the first three majors in 1950, the only majors played in women’s golf that year. Park is trying to equal that on her way to an improbable bid to win the grandest of Grand Slams, the new five-legged major championship season in women’s golf with the Evian Masters becoming a major this season.

Park, 24, seems unfazed by the buzz she’s creating chasing history. She plays with a cool equanimity that seems almost unshakeable as she keeps giving herself chances to win. Over the last year, she has finished T-4 or better in a remarkable 16 of 27 LPGA starts.

That run has fueled more confidence than she has ever felt.

“I think I'm just a lot more experienced, and I think I've been in contention a lot of times,” Park said. “So, I don't feel as pressured as before. When I'm in the winning position, I know what I need to do. I just don't get as nervous as before.”

While Park launched her brilliant run in LPGA events last summer, her caddie, Brad Beecher, said the spark really came in the spring of 2012 on a trip to Japan.

Beecher saw the light go on in April of last year when Park went over to play in the Japan LPGA Tour’s first major of that season. Park lost in a playoff to Sun-ju Ahn in the Salonpas Cup, but she bounced back to win the Fundokin Ladies Championship the following week. Beecher said Park’s confidence soared after that.

“It’s been phenomenal,” Beecher said of this run. “It’s been incredible to be alongside her and go through it week in and week out.”

As the Rolex world No. 1, Park played in the U.S. Women’s Open marquee grouping, bettering No. 2 Stacy Lewis (71) and No. 3 Suzann Pettersen (76).

“That was fun,” Lewis said. “It was cool to have that buzz. Just to be included in that group is an honor, and to play with No. 1 in the world, that’s what you want to be doing. You want to see what she’s doing to play so well. Right now, she’s solid. She’s hitting the ball close, she’s making putts.”

Just about every time LPGA pros look up nowadays, Park’s name is on a leaderboard.

“She’s just playing really great golf right now,” Hedwall said. “She's an unbelievable putter. I've never seen anyone hole that many putts. She's obviously striking the ball well, too, but that's what I see makes the big difference, when they start making a lot of putts. That gives you a lot of confidence.”

Park needed just 25 putts on Thursday. She started her round hot – splitting her first fairway and knocking a wedge to 1 foot for an opening birdie. At her second hole, she rolled in a 15-foot putt to save par.

“I don't think I've ever putted this good in my life, ever,” Park said. “I think I'm putting my best in my career at the moment.”

Beecher said Park’s stroke works well on Sebonack’s rolling, devilish greens.

“It’s really solid, especially on greens like this,” Beecher said. “She’s not hitting putts, she’s rolling them and feeling it.”

If Park keeps feeling it, Sunday could be historic.