SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — She won’t be the fan favorite when the 68th US Women’s Open starts on Thursday at Sebonack Golf Club; Stacy Lewis and Paula Creamer have that market pretty much cornered.
But Inbee Park is the prohibitive favorite.
Park is on the most impressive ride of her career, winning five times already this season — including her last two starts — and overtaking Lewis for the No. 1 spot in the Rolex world golf rankings. But what she’s trying to do this week might be the greatest challenge to date: Park can become the first player in the modern era to win the first three majors of the LPGA Tour season. It’s only been done once, when Babe Zaharias captured the first three majors in 1950.
With wins earlier this year at the Kraft Nabisco and LPGA Championship, Park has positioned herself for a run at history.
“This is the best I’m playing in my career so far,” Park said. “I’m trying to keep it going.”
She’s had it going for more than a decade now. Not always at this current clip or at this level of excellence, but Park has been winning elite tournaments for quite some time. She dominated the American Junior Golf Association, winning nine of the 25 tournaments she entered, before turning pro in 2006, when she was 17.
Park also has made her mark in US Golf Association tournaments. She was a three-time finalist at the US Girls’ Junior (winning in 2002), advanced to the semifinals of the US Women’s Amateur in 2003, and made the 2008 US Women’s Open her first victory on the LPGA Tour. Not a bad way to make a first impression.
The LPGA Tour has seen its share of dominant players over the past 20 years, from Annika Sorenstam to Lorena Ochoa to Yani Tseng. Now it seems to be Park’s turn.
“I’ve known her a long time, and I’m very happy to see her dominate,” said Tseng, the former No. 1 who has slipped to No. 7 in the world rankings. “After every tournament me and my caddie are talking, ‘Oh, Inbee won again. Oh, Inbee’s on top of the leaderboard again.’ I think that’s how I feel when I play my best, that people are talking that way about me, too. I’m not world No. 1, but it’s always good that you have people in front of you that you can chase.”
Park moved from her native South Korea when she was 12, living first in Florida and then in Las Vegas, where she learned from Butch Harmon. She is one of six players from South Korea to win the US Women’s Open, a club that started with Se Ri Pak in 1998, which led Park and so many others in South Korea to take up the game; Park was the tournament’s youngest-ever champion when she triumphed at Interlachen Country Club five years ago.
It set her on a path toward stardom that didn’t fully reach its destination until this year. Fluent in English, comfortable with the media, Park is sounding and looking like the best player in the world.
But she knows, having won this once before, how stressful and challenging US Women’s Open week is.
“There is no way that you won’t feel the pressure, because you will always feel the pressure,” Park said. “The more you experience it you just feel it a little less and less over time. Now, when I’m in the position where I am and when I’m winning, and I’ve been there a lot, it’s knowing what I have to do.”
Technically sound and without any apparent weakness (Park is among the top three in 10 statistical categories), she has created some separation among her peers. Like it or not.
“It’s frustrating for the rest of us, that’s for sure. I know people like to see somebody make history and do all of that, but for players it’s frustrating to see somebody sit there and win week after week after week,” said Lewis, who is ranked No. 2 in the world, has won twice this season, and finished tied for fourth last week in her home state of Arkansas, losing only to — you guessed it — Park. “She’s making good putts and she’s steady. She’s just always there, always giving herself a chance. 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.”
Consistency is one area of the game that Park has concentrated on, with the help of her mental coach, Sookyung Cho, and her swing coach, Gihyeob Nam, who also happens to be Park’s fiance.
This year’s success came after a 2012 that left Park doubting she could improve on her two victories. This year started with a win in Thailand, and includes, at least to date, victories in the two biggest events of the season. But the US Women’s Open trumps all those, so Park has her sights set on the biggest stage. She’s hoping the success she’s had will help her deal with what she — and every player — will find this week on Long Island.
“I’ve had a lot of wins this year and that’s definitely taken a lot of pressure off of me,” Park said. “I was really doubting myself, if I could do as good as last year, but I’ve done a lot better.
“I know I’m the favorite. But there are 156 players out here trying to win and trying to play for this trophy.”