Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 30, 2013

Park Makes History In The Hamptons

Regular readers know that here the favorite maxim is “there is always a reason why they actually play the games.” A team or a player may be superior on paper, one side or contestant may have the better track record; but no contest has ever begun with a preordained outcome. Favorites fall, underdogs rally, and the unexpected happens.

It is as true in golf as in any sport, and in fact more so on the links than on many other fields of play. The four long days of a professional golf tournament can bring widely varying weather conditions. On each of the first two days the full field goes off in two waves, with those players starting in the morning on Thursday in turn having afternoon tee times on Friday, and vice versa. A favorite’s hopes can be washed away by the simple bad luck of having Thursday afternoon and Friday morning tee times that coincide with a cold front and its wind-driven rain passing over the course, while players in the other wave play under clear skies. Just as golfers can’t control the weather, neither can they control the games of their fellow competitors. The highly touted player may perform every bit as well as expected and still wind up trailing the one person in the field whose game comes together at just the right time.

Yet if ever a golf tournament began with an outcome that was expected and then unfolded as if scripted from the first tee shot to the final putt, it was the event the USGA staged this week on the outer reaches of Long Island. For this year golf has one player who has risen to a position of utter dominance; one who truly appears capable of winning every week, especially if the event is a major. That golfer isn’t Tiger Woods, or any of the other familiar names from the PGA Tour. With a runaway victory at the U.S. Women’s Open, 24-year old Inbee Park joined Babe Didrikson Zaharias in the record books and confirmed to fans everywhere that right now she is the best golfer on the planet.

Park was still a teenager when she fired four rounds under par to win the 2008 Open at Interlachen Country Club outside of Minneapolis. That victory came a decade after Se Ri Pak became the first Korean to triumph at the premier event in women’s golf. Pak’s Open championship inspired her nation and the entire region with long-lasting effects on the LPGA Tour. Asian golfers in general and Korean women in particular now dominate the Tour to an extent far in excess of their country’s relative size. But despite winning a major as a 19-year old, Inbee Park was not one of the Korean names regularly atop the leader board at LPGA events. Listening to competing voices and trying too hard to please everyone around her, Park’s game deteriorated after her Open victory. While she won a few tournaments in Japan, she didn’t come close to winning on the LPGA Tour, and in 2011 failed to record a single top-five finish.

That’s when a change in coaches and encouragement to trust her game from caddie Brad Beecher began to turn Park’s career around. Last July she won the Evian Masters and then she won her third LPGA event in October. While American Stacy Lewis won Player of the Year honors with four victories and consistently solid play, it was Park who topped the money list and led the Tour in scoring average at year’s end.

This year Park has accelerated away from the pack. Coming into the Open she had played in twelve events. She had seven top-ten finishes and five wins, with two of those victories coming in the last two Tour stops prior to the Open. In early April she claimed the season’s first major with a four-stroke win at the Kraft Nabisco Championship. Three weeks ago she defeated Catriona Matthew on the third hole of sudden death to take the second major of 2013, the Wegmans LPGA Championship. Thus she came to the U.S. Open as a heavy favorite.

The USGA brought the Women’s Open to Sebonack Golf Club this year, out in exclusive Southampton where Gotham’s glitterati take their summers. With little wind and many tees pushed forward the course played deceptively easy on Thursday. Korea’s Kim Ha-Neul’s 6-under 66 was good for the first round lead; but with a round of six birdies and just one bogey Park was but a single shot adrift.

Fog rolled in late Friday afternoon and delayed the conclusion of the second round until Saturday morning. By the time all the scores had been returned Park’s two-day total of 9-under par put her two shots in front heading into the weekend. With a freshening wind Sebonack grew tougher and tougher as Saturday wore on, and by evening Park’s 1-under 71 was the only third round score under par. The 2-shot lead was now four.

In 1950 Babe Zaharias won the Titleholders Championship, the Women’s Western Open, and the U.S. Women’s Open, becoming the first woman to win three majors in a single season. Unlike the men’s game in which the number and identity of the major tournaments has remained the same for generations, the women’s majors have changed often over the years. At one time or another eight different tournaments have been accorded major status; and while there have been four majors each year since 1983, prior to that there were anywhere from one to four in any given year. Mickey Wright in 1961 and Pat Bradley in 1986 matched the Zaharias mark of three major victories in a single season, but neither could duplicate the feat of winning the first three to be played.

Sunday Park teed off knowing that she was 18 holes away from matching the legendary Zaharias. If that created tension it didn’t show in either her demeanor or her game. The four shot lead was briefly cut to three when I.K. Kim birdied the 2nd hole, but the game never grew any tighter. Park’s extremely upright swing is not what they teach at any golf academy; and her habit of moving her head and taking her eyes off the ball just before impact, as Annika Sorenstam did, would result in whiffs for most weekend golfers. But what matters is not the form, but the end result. On Sunday the end result was a 4-shot victory for Inbee Park and a place in golfing history next to a legend.

A month from now on the Old Course at St. Andrews Park will have a chance at doing what no golfer, male or female, has ever done. Should she win the Women’s British Open and thus a single-year Grand Slam, she would then have a first of its kind opportunity. Two years ago the LPGA announced that beginning in 2013, the Evian, where Park is the defending champion, would be moved from July to September and become the Tour’s fifth major. Call it the Super Grand Slam. Is it unlikely? In the extreme. So many things can happen over the four days of a golf tournament; and no matter how well Park plays at those events, someone else may simply play better. As always, there’s a reason why they will actually play the tournaments. On the other hand, after her performance at Sebonack, it’s the brave punter who will bet against her.

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