SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – Inbee Park’s special gift goes beyond her superior skill with a putter. She attacks golf courses with an unshakeable sense of peace.
Or so it seems, as she marches through birdies and bogeys with a countenance that won’t be cracked by elation or angst.
“She doesn’t really get very emotional,” said Yani Tseng, the former Rolex world No. 1. “She always stays very quiet. After 18 holes, you don’t know if she shot 10 under or 10 over. She’s the same, always.”
Park appears genetically incapable of hurling a golf club or an insult or even a surly, sideways glance. Solace is her ally, and her weapon. It’s a weapon in how maddeningly steady she can appear to opponents trying to press her.
“Sometimes, I’m very jealous of Inbee, because she has a very happy life,” said Na Yeon Choi, who defends her U.S. Women’s Open title at Sebonack Golf Club this week.
When all hell is breaking loose, Park is an island of tranquility amid the storm. We saw it when she struggled in the final round of the Wegmans LPGA Championship three weeks ago. She looked like she was going to throw away her back-nine lead with bogeys over three of the final five holes before coolly rebounding to beat Catriona Matthew in a playoff.
It’s a wonderful temperament that Park, 24, takes into Sundays at the majors, where worry and fear can morph into maelstroms of anxiety.
With Park’s ball striking catching up to her deft short game and velvet putting touch, she’s the favorite this week to become the first woman in more than six decades to claim the first three major championships of the year.
With the Kraft Nabisco and LPGA Championship already under her belt, Park looks in peak form as she tries to add this week’s U.S. Women’s Open as the third leg of the grandest of Grand Slam bids in women’s golf. With the Evian Masters becoming a major this year, women’s golf offers a five-legged slam.
Here at Sebonack Golf Club, a linksy course built on a vista between the Atlantic Ocean and Great Peconic Bay, the winds can bedevil players as much as the confounding undulations of the greens. That means temperaments promise to be tested. And that makes the South Korean Park doubly tough to beat. She has that steady putting stroke to navigate these greens. She also has the cool resolve to absorb the setbacks that the U.S. Women’s Open can deliver.
Improved ball striking over the last year has made Park’s game as maddeningly consistent as her temperament for pros trying to beat her. Park has already won five times this year, including the last two LPGA events.
“I know people like to see somebody make history and do all of that, but, for players, it's frustrating to see someone sit there and win week after week after week,” said Stacy Lewis, who was No. 1 until Park took it from her. “She's making good putts, and she's steady. Every time I feel like she may have an OK round, the next day, she’s up there on the leaderboard again.
“She’s just always there, always giving herself a chance, and nothing really seems to faze her. That's the big thing. She just makes putt after putt after putt, and she's there at the end of the day.”
Park broke through to win the U.S. Women’s Open when she was 19 at Interlachen, becoming the youngest winner of this event. After that, she endured four winless seasons. Her game came together in a hurry last year after her fiancé took over as her golf coach.
Gi Hyeob Nam found something in Park’s swing that turned around her erratic driving and iron games. He fixed her early release. It’s funny, though, because Park said her waywardness was important in her development. It helped her hone her short game.
“I was just hitting it everywhere,” Park said. “I had to get it up and down from everywhere. I think that's what it came down to. I improved a lot on my short game, because I had to hit it out of so many places. I probably missed nine or ten greens per round every round. I was hitting it horribly after [that first] U.S. Open. Trying to get up and downs from everywhere gave me a lot of focus.”
It’s that resolve and equanimity that makes Park a threat to become the first woman since Babe Zaharias in 1950 to win the first three major championships in a season.
A victory this week puts Park in some impressive company. Zaharias, Mickey Wright (1961) and Pat Bradley (1986) are the only women to win three majors in a single season. Even if Park doesn’t join them, you aren’t likely to see the disappointment in her.
It’s part of what makes Park look like a threat to reign at No. 1 for awhile. In a year where Rory McIlroy and Yani Tseng both confessed to trouble dealing with the pressure of being No. 1, Park plays as if she doesn’t have any worries. She plays as if she has the clearest head in golf.
“I think I'm really good at forgetting about golf when I'm off the golf course,” Park said. “I don't think about golf once I'm off the course. When I go home, I’m just very relaxed, and watch some TV. The weeks that I've been having recently, I don't think I really need to think about golf outside the golf course. I'm just very happy when I'm off the course.”