Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 1, 2013

Park Chases History As Americans Soar At St. Andrews

A FOLLOWUP FOR READERS: Taylor Collins, one of two Symetra Tour golfers featured in the post of August 25th, was the winner of this season’s edition of the Golf Channel’s The Big Break contest. With her 2-up match play victory over Matthew Galloway in the 18-hole final, the 23-year old Florida native won the $50,000 first prize and an exemption into the LPGA Tour’s Lorena Ochoa Invitational in November. Collins also won an endorsement contract from Adams Golf, an additional $30,000 from various program sponsors, and assorted other prizes.

The best women golfers in the world have made their way to the northeast coast of Scotland for the fourth women’s major of the season. On St. Andrews’ Old Course, the Ricoh Women’s British Open got underway on Thursday. Inbee Park opened with a 3-under par 69 to sit in a massive twenty-way tie for 18th place on a jammed leader board, three shots behind first round co-leaders Morgan Pressel and Camilla Lennarth.

As long as she remains in the hunt, and three shots adrift with 54 holes of golf remaining certainly qualifies, Park will be the lead story of the tournament. Having already won the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the LPGA Championship, and the U.S. Women’s Open, Park arrived at the ancient links hard by the North Sea with a chance to become the first golfer, female or male, to win four professional majors in a single season.

On her outward nine on Thursday Park showed why she is having such a dominant year. She needed just 31 strokes to reach the turn, missed only one fairway off the tee and hit eight of nine greens in regulation which making five birdies. But Park’s greatest strength has been an almost preternatural ability with the flat stick, and that continued through the first half of her round on Thursday. Through nine holes she swung the putter but 12 times. Her shortest birdie was made on a putt of 8 feet. The four others were on putts that ranged from lengthy (20 feet twice), to ridiculous (a 30 footer on the 3rd hole and a 40 footer on the 6th).

When she began the inward trek with yet another fairway hit, another green in regulation, and her sixth birdie of the day it looked like Park might run away from the field. But her drive on the 12th hole sailed wide into the heather, and while she eventually sank a 12-foot par-saving putt it seemed that the single errant shot had broken her focus. She missed three of the next four fairways. More troubling was the fact that her magical putter seemed to lose its pixie dust. The golfer who needed just 16 putts to negotiate the first twelve greens needed 14 more to traverse the final six. Park made bogey on the 13th and a double bogey on the 16th when her approach shot found the bottom of a pot bunker. From there she had no choice but to blast out away from the flag. She then three-putted from 90 feet. She added another bogey at the penultimate Road Hole before rallying with a final birdie at the last.

It is hard to comprehend the amount of pressure that Park is under as she seeks to do something that has never been done in her sport. As she showed during her walk out to the furthest reaches of the Old Course, she is capable of thoroughly dominating the field. But whether history is made on Sunday will likely turn on her ability to stay in the moment and maintain the Zen-like calm and incredible focus she displayed in winning the season’s first three majors and six LPGA events in total. She was clearly in that familiar zone through the first half of her opening round. But as she conceded in a post-round interview, once the single wild tee shot on the 12th hole burst the bubble she wasn’t able to recapture her concentration, especially on the greens.

While the Thursday leader board at any golf tournament is often of little value in predicting Sunday’s, the postings at St. Andrews provided at least a hint of hope for American women. There were 17 golfers who returned scores of 4-under 68 or better, with a two-way tie for first at 66, a seven-way tie for third at 67, and eight golfers matched in tenth place. Nine of the 17 were Americans, a remarkable number on a Tour that has been dominated of late by Asian golfers and where a strong European contingent is always a factor.

The nine were led by the 25-year old Pressel, who remains the youngest ever winner of a LPGA major with her 2007 victory at the Kraft Nabisco. In the group one shot back was 28-year old Stacy Lewis. The world #2 is the most recent American winner of a major with her Kraft Nabisco win two years ago. Among those in the big group tied for tenth was Paula Creamer, whose gallant win at the 2010 U.S. Women’s Open at Oakmont was heralded as the beginning of a dominant career. Instead more than three years later it remains the most recent win for the 26-year old nicknamed the Pink Panther.

Between Pressel’s teenage triumph in 2007 and the beginning of this week’s Open at St. Andrews there have been 27 women’s majors. Americans have won just five of them, with Christie Kerr winning the 2007 U.S. Women’s Open and 2010 LPGA Championship and Brittany Lincicome claiming the 2009 Kraft Nabisco, in addition to the wins by Creamer and Lewis. There’s a lot of golf left to play at the ancient links in the Scottish lowlands. As long as she has a chance, Inbee Park remains the story and the favorite, and deservedly so. But if Park should falter at the end, perhaps this will be the major tournament where an American woman finally makes a little history of her own.

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