Inbee Park marches into history
SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. -- Don't worry, this isn't going to be one of those shrill, "You're missing out, people!" types of pleas. There won't be any scolding here. It's understandable if American sports fans aren't buzzing about what South Korea's Inbee Park is doing in golf this year.
Instead, take this as a gentle, friendly prod, from one sports history fan to others: You'll want to tune in to the Women's British Open in August because you might see something that's never happened before in women's golf. What Park already has done in 2013 puts her in very rare air.
Sunday, Park added the U.S. Women's Open to the major titles she won at the Kraft Nabisco Championship in April and the LPGA Championship in June. She shot a 2-over 74, yet never was challenged, beating fellow South Korean I.K. Kim by four strokes.
Did any other player see the capacity for an 8-under 280 at a course marked by difficult greens and wind conditions over the weekend? Nope, not at all.
"I wanted to go out and make some drama, and I thought I had a good opportunity," said Kim, who ended the day the same way she started, four shots behind Park. "But how she's playing and putting, it's just difficult."
Park is the fourth woman to win three golf majors in a calendar year, joining Americans Babe Didrikson Zaharias (1950), Mickey Wright (1961) and Pat Bradley (1986). Zaharias was the only one of that group to have won the first three majors of the year.
"One of my goals was the career Grand Slam, not the Grand Slam," Park said of wining four majors in one year. "It would mean so much if I could do the Grand Slam. It takes so much hard work. I'm just glad that I can give it a try at St. Andrews."
Yes, the famed Scottish course is where Park will attempt to win her fourth major of 2013. As it happens, the LPGA elevated a fifth tournament this year to major status: the Evian Championship in France. It's a weird situation; a Grand Slam does refer to four, so technically, Park would have two chances at it. Or maybe she'll win both, and we'll have to come up with a different term. Super Slam? Major Sweep? The Incredible Inbee Quintuple?
"It's amazing when anybody dominates any sport. Right now that's what she's doing," said Paula Creamer, who tied with Angela Stanford as the top American in fourth place. "To do it three majors in a row, that's pretty awesome."
Creamer is the last American to win this event, in 2010. Stacy Lewis is the last American to win any major, the 2011 Kraft Nabisco Championship. Park's victory means the past 10 LPGA majors have gone to Asian-born players.
It has truly become a global tour, something that wasn't even envisioned when the LPGA was founded in 1950. That year, there were only three majors for women, and Zaharias -- considered one of the greatest female athletes of the 20th century -- won them all.
The Korean wave would start nearly a half-century later, when parents in South Korea woke up their little girls to watch Se Ri Pak win the 1998 U.S. Women's Open in a playoff, which concluded early in the morning Seoul time.
"Se Ri opened up the road for us," said So Yeon Ryu, who finished third on Sunday.
Indeed, Pak launched an untold number of youngsters in her homeland into golf, Park being one of them. Pak smiled a lot on the course, and her emotions were easy to read and relate to. Park, by contrast, is among the least demonstrative players you'll ever witness.
She raised her arms on the 18th green after winning Sunday in a gesture that seemed nearly obligatory. The past two champions of this event -- Ryu and Na Yeon Choi -- while running out to douse their countrywoman with champagne, looked more giddy than the winner herself.
But don't think Park isn't appreciating this deeply. She came to the United States as a sixth-grader, and her mother insisted she become fluent in English and immerse herself in American culture in order to be prepared to play the U.S.-based LPGA Tour. Park won't turn 25 until July 12, but she's mature beyond her years.
As for her Zen-like presence while performing, no matter how high the stakes, it's just the way her mind works.
"I feel the happiest when I'm at the golf course," Park said. "And I feel calm. Outside the golf course, I feel the pressure and I feel what everybody else is feeling. But on the golf course, it's just the golf ball and clubs."
As seven-time major winner Karrie Webb, who tied for 13th here, said, "I have a heartbeat; I don't know if Inbee has one."
If that sounds like a knock, it wasn't intended that way. Webb smiled as she said it. A Hall of Famer who's one of the best players in LPGA history, Webb is as amazed as everyone else by Park's steady demeanor no matter the circumstances.
Park's caddie of six years, Brad Beecher, said he's seen Park nervous once: in October 2012 at a tournament in Malaysia, on the 16th tee in the final round. Yes, he could recall it that specifically.
Why then? Beecher said he didn't know, and that Park was puzzled by it, too. But here's a guess: She had a four-year drought after winning the U.S. Women's Open -- her first LPGA victory -- in 2008. She was just 19 then, signed with some new sponsors, and felt like she needed to meet bigger expectations.
She finally won a tournament again at the 2012 Evian, and then was poised to win again in Malaysia but was in a tight battle with her friend Choi. Maybe those nerves were about needing to consolidate the Evian victory in a relatively short time period to convince herself a drought couldn't happen again.
Well, she did that. She won, and the door was slammed on nerves. They haven't been seen since. Park now has won six times in 2013, including the last three consecutive LPGA events.
Park wasn't perfect Sunday; she had four bogeys to two birdies, and it was the only round in which she didn't shoot under par. But she was never rattled.
As they came up the 18th fairway with evening approaching on an overcast day, Beecher said he told Park, "Enjoy this walk, you are about to join history."
Park's reaction? A little smile. It was the first time the two had spoken about it.
"If you think about all of those things on the golf course," Park said, "you can't concentrate on golf."
So is this really being appreciated? After all, the LPGA doesn't get that much mainstream publicity, even though there's more talent on the tour now than ever before. And, of course, American sports fans might be more engaged if the woman going for a Grand Slam was part of the ol' Red, White and Blue.
But Park will have the hopes of her country, and the eyes of the entire golf world, resting on her in August when she tees it up at St. Andrews.
"That's going to be a great experience," Park said. "Whether I do it or not, I'm just a very lucky person."
We're pretty lucky, too, getting to witness it.