What a year for the LPGA to add a fifth major.
Now that Inbee Park has completed the rarest of hat tricks, winning the U.S. Women’s Open, her third major in a row, in a dazzling display of robotic consistency, we head to the home of golf wondering what, exactly, is at stake there.
Is Park attempting to complete the traditional Grand Slam … or is she trying to capture the fourth leg of the newly created Super Slam?
Here’s another question, this one with no clear answer: If Park wins the British Open, but not the Evian Masters, then what will it all mean, historically?
“It would be great if I could win five, but I still think four means a Grand Slam,” she said Sunday night. “I think four out of five is very big.”
Very big, indeed, but it’s an unsettling scenario for the LPGA brass, which two years ago announced that the women were joining the likes of the Champions Tour and creating a quintet of majors.
The Evian is a fine event. It’s played in mid-September. It’s played on a scenic course in France. There’s a hefty purse. But it doesn't deserve to be a major, not yet anyway, and certainly not just because the title sponsor pushed for a status change and the LPGA (after giving tournament officials a lengthy list of required changes) finally relented.
This is relevant now, of course, because Park is on the verge of transcending gender and rewriting the sport’s record books, no matter if her season ends in an Almost Slam, a Grand Slam, a Super Slam or a Golf Historian Body Slam.
The hottest athlete in all of sports just tamed the toughest test in women’s golf, thumping the nearest competitor by four strokes and the rest of the field by seven, and the possibilities seem endless after her stroll at Sebonack.
Consider this: In her last 28 tournaments, Park has eight wins (including three majors), six runners-up and 20 top-10s, a stretch that conjures memories of Tiger Woods’ sustained brilliance earlier this century. As she said after her sixth title of the season, “It’s scary to think what I’m really capable of doing.”
Indeed, at the Aug. 1-4 British Open, Park, 24, will attempt to become the first player, male or female, to win four professional majors in a calendar year.
Regardless of what happens on the famed links, she already has matched Babe Zaharias, who won the first three (and only) majors in 1950, and Mickey Wright (1961) and Pat Bradley (1986), both of whom captured three majors in a season, albeit nonconsecutively. On the men’s side, only Ben Hogan (1953) and Tiger Woods (2000) have won three majors in a season in the Masters era. That’s it.
What looms now, however, is a different kind of challenge. The U.S. Open, which Park just won at 8-under 280, may be billed as the most grueling examination of skill, but the British is unquestionably the quirkiest and most difficult to win. It’s the major most affected by luck – the conditions, the draw, the bounces, everything.
After all, that’s what derailed Woods in 2002. He arrived at Muirfield having won the year’s first two majors, and after 36 holes that year he was just two shots off the lead. But that Saturday he was blown off the course, signing for an 81 when the wind howled, the temperature dropped into the 30s and the sideways rain made standing upright, never mind shooting a decent score, a near-impossible feat.
No other major promises such unpredictability. A miserable few hours can dramatically alter history.
As competitors, that’s easier to digest because, essentially, it’s out of their control, as it was for Woods in ’02. But the possibility of a wind-blasted bid for the Slam should stress even Park’s most ardent supporters, especially since she’ll be back home in Korea the week before the British, celebrating what has been a record-smashing season. Already she concedes that she “might not get too much time to myself” that week, which would seem a warning sign with a major – a potentially historic major – on the horizon.
Of course, Park has been so good, and so dominant, this season, a deviation from her usual pre-major routine might matter little; Angela Stanford on Sunday wondered whether the unflappable world No. 1 ever hits the ball sideways. Unfortunately for Stanford and others, the answer is not often, which makes the contenders’ task all the more daunting at the British.
Though it remains the only major she has yet to win, Park has a solid record across the pond – four top-11 finishes in six years, including a (distant) runner-up last year at Royal Liverpool.
Meanwhile, we wait to see if another challenger will emerge. Stacy Lewis is No. 2 in the Rolex Rankings but hasn’t performed well in the first three majors this season; Suzann Pettersen is immensely talented but maddeningly inconsistent; Yani Tseng, the former world No. 1 who vacuumed up four majors in 2010-11, hasn’t won a title of any kind in 15 months. Some other player, perhaps emboldened by the thought of denying history, could step forward and hoist the trophy. But not like this. Not if Park is on her game.
In the run-up to the Open she’ll be bombarded with questions about the significance of her pursuit, about whether a victory there completes the Grand Slam or merely the fourth leg of the Super Slam.
What’s not in dispute, however, is that another major title would mean Park has captured the career Grand Slam, at age 25, at St Andrews, no less. That’s where Woods wrapped up his own career slam, in 2000. And the way she’s been playing lately, it’s a fitting parallel.