RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – How does an artist follow up a masterpiece?
How daunting were the challenges for Michelangelo after he painted the Sistine Chapel? Or for Beethoven after he composed his ninth symphony?
The first major championship of the year arrives with that question.
How does Rolex world No. 1 Inbee Park follow up the artistry she exhibited in last year’s majors?
Park didn’t just win the Kraft Nabisco Championship in 2013. She launched a major championship run the likes of which the women’s game hadn’t witnessed in six decades. By going on to win the Wegmans LPGA Championship and the U.S. Women’s Open, Park became the first woman to win the first three majors of the year since Babe Zaharias in 1950.
Park, 25, may well leap into Poppie’s Pond after topping the field at the Kraft Nabisco again this week, but how does she top herself in the 2014 majors? How does she top one of the greatest seasons in the history of women’s majors?
“Every new season, I think about doing better than the last season,” Park said. “That’s usually my goal. Obviously, it’s going to be very tough to beat last year.”
Tough? She would have to do something no man or woman has ever done. She would have to win four major championships in the same calendar year. Park, though, says tournament results aren’t a total gauge of how she measures success. Park said she elevated her game, in great part, by focusing on being a complete person, on being content and happy off the course. She says she is tackling the challenges this year in the same way.
If you think that’s a lot of nonsense, ask LPGA pros who have been around Park the last four or five years.
“You always see her and her fiancé when they're traveling,” Stacy Lewis said when asked about the difference in Park’s game last year. “They're always holding hands, walking in the airport, and they are very cute together. You can tell she's very happy in her life, and obviously very happy with where her golf game is. More than anything, that's what's showing in her game.”
Fellow South Korean Na Yeon Choi envies more than Park’s great putting skills.
“Sometimes, I’m very jealous of Inbee, because she has a very happy life,” Choi said.
Park’s formula for contentment, however, links her heart and swing in ways few players do.
That’s because Park’s swing coach is also her fiancé. She has been engaged to Gi Hyeob Nam for more than two years. Nam began traveling with her full time in 2012, and it’s no coincidence her game took off about the same time.
Nam’s magic runs beyond the heart.
Park broke through to win the U.S. Women’s Open when she was 19 at Interlachen, becoming the youngest winner of the championship. After that, she endured four winless seasons amid some erratic ball striking. Her game came together in a hurry with Nam guiding her.
Nam found something in Park’s swing that turned around her waywardness. He fixed her early release, creating a lower ball flight.
When Park accepted her Rolex Player of the Year Award last year, she talked about what Nam’s commitment to her means.
“He took a tremendous risk when he decided to stand by me and support me on the tour,” Park said. “I don’t think I could thank him enough for the sacrifices he has made. Despite not speaking English, he made a decision to move to a foreign country with only one thing, faith in me.
“Some people say he is the lucky one, but they are wrong. I am the lucky one. Because of him, I was able to fall in love again with golf. I began to enjoy my life on tour and that is reflected in my play.”
Park is off to a strong start again this year. She won the World Ladies Championship on the Ladies European Tour last month and has finished in the top 10 in all four of her LPGA starts this year. She believes her ball striking is better than it was a year ago, and she's waiting for her putter to get hot.
“I’m going to have tough weeks,” Park said. “But, I think, just being a happier person, not thinking so much about results, just thinking about what I can do and what I can control.”