ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Inbee Park was apparently born with cool equanimity in her genes.
The unshakeable sense of peace with which she plays this maddening game was a gift from her mother.
That’s what Sung Kim Park, Inbee’s mother, says with a wry smile.
“I made her that way,” Sung Kim said, rubbing her belly as if she were still pregnant with Inbee.
Sung Kim was good-naturedly joking, but she will tell you that her daughter seems to have been born with the gift of a serene disposition.
“She has always been like that, since a small child,” Sung Kim said.
Park’s fellow LPGA pros don’t doubt that with Park teeing it up Thursday in a bid to win the Ricoh Women’s British Open and become the first man or woman to win four professional majors in one season. The weight of history is pressing down on Park, and even her closest friends couldn’t help wonder how she’s holding up under that.
“One thing I worried about is all the media attention she’s getting,” said So Yeon Ryu, who played a practice round with Park on Wednesday. “I worried about if she would lose concentration, but after playing with her today, I’m not worried anymore. She doesn’t look nervous or too excited. She is calm like she always is.”
Park seems so suited to St. Andrews and the Old Course. When she changed her swing a couple years ago with the help of her coach/fiancé, Gi Hyeob Nam, she lowered her ball flight. It should serve her well on the Old Course, where the winds can blow so hard off the North Sea. She also has a terrific short game. She said it’s a benefit from having been such a wild ball striker in her youth. Of course, she is also the best putter in the women’s game, a particularly adept lag putter, a vital skill on the Old Course’s monstrous greens.
The X factor this week is how all the building pressure to make history will affect her.
Hall of Famer Carol Mann thinks Park’s even temperament is a huge asset this week.
“She seems to have less of herself to overcome,” Mann said.
That observation cuts to the heart of what players face trying to win prizes built into monumental importance. So often, players get in their own way. Majors are so often lost more than they are won. It’s why so many players have sports psychologists.
Park has a sports psychologist, Sookyung Cho, but Park’s naturally easy temperament is a gift.
“I think that's been my personality forever, since I was a little kid,” Park said. “My emotions don't express so much on my face. That’s just how I play golf. It’s been working really good on the golf course. So, I think I found myself.”
Park says she feels nerves more than people think, but that’s hard for even her caddie to fathom. He said he has detected nerves in her just once.
“I have never seen her angry or emotional,” said Brad Beecher, who has been on Park’s bag for six years. “The only time I ever saw her nervous was at Malaysia last year, and I can’t tell you why.”
Park admirably handled the pressure at the U.S. Women’s Open last month. After making three consecutive bogeys in her Saturday round at Sebonack, and looking as if she were unraveling, she made back-to-back birdies. When she won the LPGA Championship in June, she blew her lead on the back nine in the final round with some wild ball striking but bounced back with a brilliant playoff performance to beat Catriona Matthew.
In those wayward moments, Park never looked the least bit shaken.
“I do believe she has a very good chance of pulling this off because of her demeanor and confidence,” Hall of Famer Pat Bradley said.
While trying to make history in the women’s game, Park is venturing into territory visited by very few players. Bradley is one of them.
Back in 1986, Bradley created a buzz over her run at the Grand Slam by winning the year’s first two majors. After winning the Kraft Nabisco Championship and the LPGA Championship, Bradley headed to NCR Country Club in Dayton, Ohio, with everybody in the women’s game talking about her attempt.
Bradley confessed she felt abnormally nervous when she stepped to the first tee in the first round.
“I was nervous every day leading up to that first round,” Bradley said. “All the talk was about the Grand Slam, with this huge buzz building. I didn’t handle that aspect of it very well. With all the hype and hoopla, I got off to a rough start.”
Bradley shot 76 in the first round and still made a run at winning. She tied for fifth, finishing three shots out of the playoff that Jane Geddes won.
After going on to win the year’s final major to take three of the four majors, Bradley was left to wonder what might have been.
“There’s an old saying that you can’t win a tournament on Thursday, but you can lose it,” Bradley said. “I did lose it on Thursday.”
Bradley loves Park’s cool demeanor. Bradley was a fiery competitor, a different personality than Park.
“Her composure is so at ease, she puts you at ease watching her,” Bradley said. “When I was doing my deal, I would have people on the edge of their seats with their hearts in their stomachs. When I watched Inbee at the U.S. Women’s Open, I sat back and I was so at ease. She’s a joy to watch. She’s so in control of herself.”
Annika Sorenstam knows what Grand Slam pressure is, too. She won the first two majors of the ’05 season to build a buzz over her bid as she went to the U.S. Women’s Open at Cherry Hills. Sorenstam never got into her usual rhythm and said she began trying to force things. She tied for 23rd.
“I was hearing all the Grand Slam talk, and I thought it was possible, having won each of the majors before,” Sorenstam said. “But I came to Denver, and I didn’t play well. I think I was just exhausted from the buildup, the expectations and the fact that it had already been a long season. I was patient at first, and then I just pushed and pushed, and it wasn’t enough.”
Sorenstam won 10 times in ’05.
Nancy Lopez felt the pressure to make history as a rookie in her winning streak that year. In ’78, she set an LPGA record by winning five tournaments in a row. As she went for her sixth consecutive victory, the interest in her was intense.
“No matter what anyone says, it’s hard to handle that pressure,” Lopez said. “I went to bed nervous, I woke up nervous. So, I felt the nerves, but I think they were good for me.”
Lopez said focus becomes a challenge as a streak builds.
“You have to stay in the moment, not think too far ahead, but it’s hard when you’re being asked about it all the time, when you’re having to talk about it so much,” Lopez said.
Lopez also believes Park’s personality suits her to this week’s challenge.
“I think it will help her get through the chaos,” Lopez said.