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Wednesday, April 17, 2013
Inbee Park has bold game, shy demeanor

By Melissa Isaacson

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. -- No one has ever asked Tiger Woods to smile more on the golf course.

Especially this past week.

But seriously, while Woods' image was obviously a concern the past few years, it was a concern more for him and his sponsors than for the PGA tour, which managed to survive during his temporary plunge in the rankings.

There is no such luxury on the LPGA tour, which reveled the past month after Stacy Lewis -- an American with a nice smile and the ability to do some positive marketing -- was elevated to the top ranking.

The day Lewis took the ranking from Taiwan's Yani Tseng, who held it for 109 consecutive weeks, even Tseng remarked it was "good for golf" to have an American No. 1.

You probably won't hear the same thing this week about South Korean Inbee Park, who on April 7 won the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the LPGA's first major of the year, and as of Monday, took over the top spot by a 0.04-point margin.

The newest face of the LPGA is not, shall we say, a big smiler. She is also not American but Asian, as are 13 of the top 25 and 29 of the top 50 women on tour.

Inbee's game right now is tops, so I don't think she really needs to work on anything, but yes, she probably needs to be showing her personality more. But she's really nice. Just no one really knows about it. It's probably a lot better to smile for the fans, more fun to watch it, but she'll learn. She's getting better, she's just a little shy.

-- Se Ri Pak

LPGA commissioner Mike Whan, who rescued and has energized a listing organization since taking over four years ago, said Friday before the latest rankings were released that he was more than OK for Park to be on top.

"It might sound like a PR answer," Whan said, "but I really think the cool thing about the LPGA right now is that when you talk about players who are or have been No. 1 in the world, we have a little bit of every personality, from hip-bumping high-fives to the shy and introverted, which is the same as any high school girls' golf team."

Park, as with most of the top young Asian players, speaks English -- once a requirement complete with penalties for noncompliance. Yet for a tour that organizes glamour shoots, there is still that elephant in the room. Are the top players attractive enough? Personable enough? And -- sadly -- American enough?

Even the women on tour acknowledged that in Park's case, being more outgoing was something she could improve upon. And you get the feeling that as Lydia Ko's game continues to mature, the remarkable 15-year-old, Korean-born New Zealander will be advised to paint a smile on her face.

"Inbee's game right now is tops, so I don't think she really needs to work on anything, but yes, she probably needs to be showing her personality more," veteran pro and fellow South Korean Se Ri Pak said. "But she's really nice. Just no one really knows about it. It's probably a lot better to smile for the fans, more fun to watch it, but she'll learn. She's getting better, she's just a little shy."

Park is nice. And extremely candid and cooperative in interviews. And she did smile when it was appropriate a week ago Sunday -- such as after most of her six birdies on the day, and after finishing at 15 under par to win the second major of her career.

"I just like to stay a little quiet and just do my own thing," she said when asked about operating under the radar. "If I win a little more, I think I'll get a little bit more attention."

On the course, her unflappable nature is a strength.

"I feel pressure," Park said, "but my emotions just don't show that much in my face."

"She's not really smiling on the course, but she's really a funny person," said Park's friend So Yeon Ryu, also from South Korea and the runner-up at the Kraft Nabisco. "She has really great energy, and she really loves playing golf."

That should be evident to anyone who has watched Park over the past few months, when she won four tournaments in 16 starts. A workhorse, Park plans to play 32 events this year alone.

But again, she's reserved, which is why sports editors from major U.S. newspapers still pray each week for the more marketable Michelle Wie to make a rare breakthrough, and why the entertaining Ryu was pumped for some compelling insight into Park's personality.

"Off the golf course, she doesn't like shopping," Ryu said. "But her fiancÚ so much loves the shopping. She said that's the biggest problem for her because she really wants to just rest in the bed, but he always wants to go into shopping. ... And that, she said, is the most tiring thing.''

Whan said he loves that different stars from different countries are being introduced to fans all over the world. And he makes one other thing clear.

"I would never ask a player to change their personality inside the ropes," he said. "They play golf for a living, and they know how they have to play golf. What I do on a regular basis, though, is reinforce how important it is to engage with sponsors and fans. The good news is that everyone wants to know you, and the bad news is that everyone means everyone."

Under Whan's direction, the LPGA has six more tournaments and $8.5 million more in total prize money than two years ago. There will be 28 events and 360 hours of coverage on the Golf Channel this year, and a fifth major, the Evian Championship in France, added to the summer schedule.

But when Lewis grabbed the No. 1 ranking, there was hope it would be for the long haul. After the Kraft Nabisco, where she finished in a tie for 32nd, Lewis took off for the Masters and an appearance at the Golf Writers Awards, followed by interviews at CNN in Atlanta.

"We're going to get recognition for this tour," she said, "and right now I guess I'm the face of it."

"I promise, everyone is going to get to know Inbee, and the more they do, the more they will get to like her," Whan said. "Remember Na Yeon Choi [the 2012 U.S. Women's Open champion]? She was quiet and shy and now carries one of the bigger galleries on tour. Her performance changed the interest level in her personality.''

Still, Whan does not try to deny the importance of having Americans atop the rankings.

"The overwhelming majority of sponsors we have are still American businesses," he said. "This is my pride point, and it's important that we have that red, white and blue flag out there because it drives interest from fans and sponsors.

"But having superstars outside the U.S. is also critical to me because we have sponsors and TV rights in those markets as well [the LPGA is in 165 countries]. If we were just a great American tour, we would be half the size."

Whan likens his product to a weekly Olympics and said there are a lot worse things for him than having a solemn No. 1.

"I think what people like is the battle," he said. "When it's game over and not a race anymore, it's a lot harder for me to sell."

In the meantime, the LPGA will sell Park. Or at least Ryu will.

"She so much loves the babies," Ryu said. "She looks like she's not really smiling on the golf course, but when she meets a baby and when she's hanging out with a baby, she looks happy, like always smiling. So different than on the golf course."

With Ryu as Park's opening act, Park doesn't need to defend herself.

Then again, she shouldn't have to.