Park wins psychological edge over Ko, Lewis


Inbee Park won the battle royale in Singapore.

She held off 17-year-old sensation Lydia Ko and American star Stacy Lewis in their dynamic final-round grouping Sunday and that made winning the HSBC Women’s Champions all the sweeter.

Make no mistake, for Park, there was special satisfaction looking her toughest foes in the eyes and beating them straight up, deeper meaning in beating her rivals like that, too.

There was new psychological turf claimed, borders re-staked and memories built for future empowerment.

“I think it definitely gives me a little bit more confidence playing with Lydia and Stacy at the same time,” Park said in her news conference afterward. “It's probably like a dream pairing. We get this a lot in the first and second rounds, but it's tough to actually have that in the final round. I had to play better than them in the final round to win.

“It's not the pairing I really look forward to playing in the final round. It’s very difficult and probably the toughest pairing that I probably have all year.”

Ko arrived in Singapore red hot, coming off back-to-back victories at the Women’s Australian Open and New Zealand Women’s Open. Park took Ko’s best shots early Sunday but didn’t rattle, crack or even blink.

Two shots ahead at day’s start, Park watched Ko make birdies at the fourth and fifth holes to tie her for the lead. She watched Lewis get within one shot of her with a birdie at the fourth hole.

“I was kind of expecting Lydia and Stacy to make birdies, and I kind of expected them to play well today,” Park said. “I was just telling myself, I'm not making any birdies but I'm not making any bogeys. I'm not making any mistakes, so that's a good sign.”

Remarkably, Park didn’t make a bogey all week.

With her wire-to-wire victory, and without a dropped shot over the entire 72-hole event, Park was a rock, both an immovable object atop the leaderboard and an irresistible force rolling across the difficult Sentosa Golf Club’s Serapong Course.

“No bogeys around here, on a course where you can hit a good shot and you can get bad luck,” Ko said. “That's pretty phenomenal.”

How phenomenal?

Ko made three bogeys in the final round alone, and Lewis had six through four rounds. Nobody beside Park had fewer than three bogeys all week.

“I don't think I can even believe myself that I didn't make any bogeys for 72 holes,” Park said.

With her final-round 2-under-par 70, Park ended the week at 15 under overall, two shots better than the runner-up Ko and four better than the third-place Lewis. It was Park’s first victory this year, her 11th worldwide title over the last 25 months.

Six weeks ago, Ko took the No. 1 ranking from Park. While Park won’t get it back with Sunday’s victory, she narrows the gap on Ko. She moves to within .95 points of Ko in their average world ranking, which will put the No. 1 spot up for grabs when they tee it up together again in two weeks at the LPGA’s return to the United States, the JTBC Founders Cup in Phoenix.

Typically, Park makes her largest impression with her putter, but she won in Singapore with superior ball striking. She hit every green but one in regulation over the weekend and all 18 greens in regulation on Sunday.

“I don't think anybody else played better long game than me this week, that's for sure,” Park said.

Park missed just six greens in regulation (66 of 72) the entire week in Singapore. Ko missed five greens on Sunday alone; Lewis missed nine on Sunday.

Hands down, Park is the best putter in the women’s game, having led the LPGA in putts per GIR three times in her career and twice in the last three seasons. What has to be catching the eye of her foes is how much her ball striking has improved under the eye of her coach and husband, Gi Hyeob Nam. Park told us at year’s start she was a little frustrated with her putting last year - even though she ranked third on tour in putts per GIR - because she thought she hit the ball so much better last year than she did in her record-setting 2013 campaign that she gave herself so many more good birdie chances last year.

To be sure, Park’s ball striking made an impression on her peers. Ko uncharacteristically battled her driver Sunday, fighting a pull or hook. She also missed two short putts for par, a 5-footer at the eighth hole and a 3-footer at the 12th hole. If the intensity required winning in back-to-back weeks took something out of Ko, she wasn’t saying so.

“I'm going to work a little bit more over the next week to get a little bit more consistent in my long game,” Ko said. “I think that will give me a little room, so my putter doesn't have to work so hard.”

Lewis battled her driver, too, forcing her to scramble impressively to stay in the hunt. She made a crazy good par at the 12th after her ball wedged in the top of a palm tree, forcing her caddie to climb a cart to go up and identify it.

Given the overall consistency of Ko, Park and Lewis, nobody should be surprised to see these three dueling again soon, though not necessarily all three together in the final Sunday pairing again. That was so unusual, such a treat to fans of the women’s game.

“This is just early, we have so many tournaments to come,” Park said.

So many more trophies and world-ranking points to be won, and so much more psychological turf to be claimed.