SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — For almost an hour on Saturday, it looked like Inbee Park was losing the dominant grip she’d had on the 68th US Women’s Open since it started.
Then, just as methodically, Park restored order, and returned to the path that appears to have just one destination. She’s one round away from joining Babe Zaharias as the only players to win the first three major championships in an LPGA Tour season. Zaharias did it 63 years ago.
What’s more, Park is attempting to go wire-to-wire at Sebonack Golf Club, and has doubled her lead over I.K. Kim every day. She led by one stroke after opening with 67, led by two following a second-round 68, and now finds herself four shots in front. Park’s 71 on Saturday was her highest score of the week, but for the third straight day, she had the lowest score.
Sensing a pattern here? The world’s top-ranked player is leaving little doubt about the identity of the world’s best female golfer. It’s not unique to the LPGA Tour, which has featured a dominant presence for years, from Nancy Lopez to Annika Sorenstam, Lorena Ochoa to Yani Tseng.
Now it’s Park’s turn. If form holds and she doubles her lead again, she’ll win the US Women’s Open on Sunday by eight shots, which would be the most since 1980. The tournament record for margin of victory is 14. That mark appears safe, but the way Park has played and handled the pressure this week, maybe not.
“I’m just going to think that I.K. and I are tied starting tomorrow, because anything can happen out here,” Park said. “I mean, four shots, it could be nothing around this golf course. I just have to keep pushing myself to make pars. I think par is going to be good enough tomorrow.
“A lot of thinking going on, a lot of pressure. But I’ve done that before, so I think the experience is going to help.”
Pars are always good at a US Women’s Open, and when Park opened the third round with eight straight, then birdied No. 9, and made another par at 10, she found herself holding a five-shot lead.
But then came the first sign of a possible crack. Park made three straight bogeys (Nos. 11-13) and had her lead reduced to three shots.
Only one way to stop the bleeding, as any golfer knows: play better. Park buried a downhill 30-footer for a birdie on No. 14, added another birdie at the 15th, and one final birdie at No. 18. The three consecutive bogeys were answered with three birdies in her final five holes, a sure sign that she’s in control.
“That was a big putt for me,” Park said of the long make at No. 13. “Those three bogeys were very tough to handle. I think I played very good today, especially after the three bogeys. I had my tough times in the middle, but ended up finishing very good, so I’m happy with that.”
There were only five players under par through 54 holes, and it could be a two-player race on Sunday, depending on what Park (10 under) and Kim (6 under) do. Kim overcame a poor start (3 over after three holes) to salvage a 73, including four birdies on her final 11 holes. She matched Park’s birdie at the last to at least stay within shouting distance.
“I think we have a chance,” Kim said. “Yeah, she’s playing great. But you never know. I might have a great day tomorrow. Golf is different than other sports. That’s why you play four rounds.”
Nobody knows that better than Park, who will attempt to win her sixth tournament in 12 starts this season. More importantly, all three majors that have been played so far.
“I’m just going to try to do the same thing that I did for the last three days,” Park said. “It will be a big day, but it’s just a round of golf. I try not to think about it too much. I just try to concentrate on whatever I’m doing on the golf course.”
So far, that’s been more than enough. Will the same be said come Sunday evening?