A marathon major win for Inbee Park
PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- When Inbee Park won her first major championship, the 2008 U.S. Women's Open, the whole thing sort of snuck up on her. She was just shy of her 20th birthday then, and wasn't expecting such a big prize so soon.
Sunday, though, Park saw a major championship almost sneak away from her. But Park, the world's No. 1-ranked female player, held on to beat Scotland's Catriona Matthew on the third hole of a playoff at the LPGA Championship.
What? Huh? How?
Yeah, that was also the reaction of most of the folks out at Locust Hill Country Club on what was -- finally -- a nice, sunny day here this week. Playoff? Are you kidding? And how in the world did the "old lady" from Scotland -- you know, the one who was born way back in the 1960s -- end up almost grabbing this trophy?
You had to see it to believe it. On a scheduled 36-hole closing day, thanks to Thursday's complete rainout of play, it certainly didn't appear this event would go even longer. Especially not with Park having a three-shot lead over her then-nearest competitor, American Morgan Pressel, with five holes left.
It looked like Park's title was all but in the bag.
"About on 16, 17, when I was looking at the [leaderboard], I really didn't think I had a chance," Matthew said. "She's not the kind of player you'd expect to fall back."
But Park didn't slam the door. Just when it seemed as if Park was doing her boa-constrictor act on the tournament -- grabbing hold of the lead and squeezing out Pressel and the rest of the field -- she suddenly lost her grip.
Three bogeys on the last five holes of regulation dropped Park to a final-round 75, leaving her at 5-under 283. Matthew, who was out of the spotlight most of the tournament, also was at 283 after a final-round 68 she posted two groups ahead of Park.
Pressel, who had led after the second round and was a shot back after the third round, had a closing 75 and missed the playoff by one stroke. That left her in tears and made for an unexpected ending for the tournament. Throughout most of the fourth round, all eyes had been on Park and Pressel, battling in the final group.
The playoff between Park and Matthew was as if you'd been watching a movie with dueling protagonists, and suddenly in the final 15 minutes, one of them disappears and a different character pops up to take a lead role.
Matthew is not someone most would expect to be challenging for another LPGA win, let alone at a major. She'll turn 44 in August, and has the emotional pull of her two young daughters back home in Scotland with her husband, Graeme.
By contrast, Park -- who will be 25 next month -- is just entering her prime. But it took three playoff holes for Park to claim the title, winning on about a 20-foot birdie putt.
"I felt like I ran a marathon today," Park said, "and I'm just happy that we got it done."
The "we" includes her caddie, Brad Beecher, and her fiancé and swing coach, Gihyeob Nam. Their relationship predates his coaching her by a few years, and he was resistant at first to mix the two. But Park asked for his help.
"It worked out good for me," Park said, grinning. "I'm playing [the] best in my career with him. I have improved a lot."
You can sure say that. The victory gave Park her fourth LPGA title of 2013 and the third major of her career; her second major came earlier this year at the Kraft Nabisco Championship.
She is the seventh woman to win the first two majors of an LPGA season; the last to do that was Sweden's Annika Sorenstam in 2005.
Park has won more than $1.2 million this year and has taken over the No. 1 ranking. With three majors left -- the LPGA tour added a fifth this year by elevating the Evian Championship to that status -- there are more big titles and big money on the table.
And to think that at this tournament last year, Park was ranked No. 26 in the world and had not won since her breakthrough 2008 Women's Open victory. But in the 12 months since the 2012 LPGA Championship, Park has won six times and earned more than $3 million.
"A year ago, everything really started to click," Park said. "My weakest part of my game was ball-striking, [while] my short game and putting have always been very good. I started to hit the ball lots better and give myself a lot of birdie chances."
Park didn't actually hit it very well in Sunday's final round, though, saying, "It was just going everywhere, and I wasn't too comfortable with my swing."
Meanwhile, Matthew was steadily gaining ground, even if she didn't realize how much. Matthew is near the end of her career, but don't close the door on her yet. She's won four LPGA titles: the first in 2001, and the most recent in 2011. She's also played on the European women's tour and has been on Europe's Solheim Cup team six times. She may make that seven this August.
Matthew might have won her second major Sunday -- she was the 2009 Women's British Open champion -- had she been able to close the deal in the playoff. But the steadiness, even when not at her best, that has lifted Park to the top spot in the world rankings prevailed again.
And the Asian domination of the biggest LPGA tournaments continues. Asian-born players now have won the past nine major titles. The past four have been won by South Koreans: the two this year by Park, the 2012 U.S. Women's Open by Na Yeon Choi, and the 2012 Women's British Open by Jiyai Shin.
"Everybody is really, I think, inspired by each other and trying to play better than each other," Park said of the successful South Korean contingent. "And I think it really helps that you have friends together, traveling together. It's tough to do it on your own out here."
But nobody is doing it better on the LPGA tour this year than Park is.