Inbee Park embracing opportunity
ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- Inbee Park entered a new reality after winning the U.S. Women's Open on June 30. The calendar turned a page, and Park turned an unexpected corner in her career.
She found herself the winner of three major championships in a row and the subject of Grand Slam talk. Could she become the first player, male or female, to win four professional golf majors in a calendar year?
Park spoke a couple of weeks after her victory at Sebonack Golf Club and said, "It just feels very awkward to me at the moment. I'm trying to get used to the attention, to the pressure. I mean, you're always going to feel the pressure. How could you not feel it in the type of situation I'm in?"
Yet this week, on the eve of the Women's British Open, Park seems to have a better handle on everything.
"At first, I felt the pressure," she said of the Grand Slam buzz. "But then, you know, as time goes by, the more experience I get, I really started to get used to it. Once I get on the golf course, I don't really think about it so much."
Sports psychologists -- and amateur psychologists, for that matter -- know there are different kinds of athletes in regard to the overriding topic of performance under pressure.
There are those who become unwound when the stakes get high. They make mental and physical mistakes that are uncharacteristic. Things such as muscle memory on putts suddenly become shaky. Actions that are usually second nature turn into movements they have to think about. It's not a pretty sight.
Other athletes seem to thrive on pressure, to get a boost from the adrenaline rush and even do things beyond what they normally can achieve.
And then there's another group of athletes, those who seem "immune" to pressure. It doesn't make them play worse, nor does it necessarily make them play better. These athletes are consistently high performers regardless of what's on the line.
Park, by all appearances, is one of those latter athletes. And that's because she really enjoys the "process" of playing a round of golf. She stays in the moment, shot to shot. She feels completely in control on the course.
"When I'm off the course, I feel the pressure," Park said. "So I try to concentrate on being on the course."
Growing up on and off course
Park is, by nature, a quiet and somewhat shy person. That sphinx-like persona?
"That's been my personality forever -- since I was a little kid," she said. "My emotions don't express so much on my face."
She came to the United States from her native South Korea at age 12, having to learn English and adjust to a different culture. The interviews, the public scrutiny, the external expectations -- those were more taxing than the physical work required to become an elite golfer.
Now, having recently turned 25, Park has reached a comfort level with all of those things.
"Once you really start to do it a lot and get used to it, I can find some fun in those parts, too," Park said of the interviews and public appearances that go with her job. "Playing golf is the easiest thing for me; it was always easy. I am the happiest when I'm on the golf course."
Park has credited her fiancée, Gi Hyeob Nam, and her sports psychologist, Sookyung Cho, with helping her develop into the player she is. Nam has worked on Park's swing to help shore up what was previously a weaker part of her game: ball striking. And he's a constant presence.
"You always see her and her fiancé when they are traveling -- they are always holding hands. They are very cute together," said Stacy Lewis, who is ranked No. 2 in the world behind Park. "You can tell she's very happy in her personal life and with where her golf game is."
Cho has worked with Park since after the 2008 U.S. Women's Open. Park won that at age 19 and then struggled with the pressure to follow it up. Park said that over the years, Cho's advice has evolved with her own growth.
"She makes me a happier person," Park said. "She teaches me how to handle the pressure, how to enjoy the game of golf, what things to concentrate on. It changes every week."
Park's competitors often sound envious of the calm that Park has maintained throughout this year, even as her results have made the pressure build.
"I don't know how many media commitments she's had; maybe she's done a good job of lessening the distractions," former No. 1 Karrie Webb said. "It's hard not to get caught up in it yourself, and thinking ahead about the magnitude of what you're doing. I don't think too many people would be handling it as well as she is.
"What she's attempting to do means a great deal, and I hope a lot of people talk about it. At the start of the year, I wouldn't have imagined anyone being in this position. She's just played unbelievably well on all different sorts of golf courses."
Embracing the privilege
Tennis legend Billie Jean King believed so strongly in embracing pressure that she wrote a book about it: "Pressure Is a Privilege." That's the mantra King repeated to herself in 1973 before she faced Bobby Riggs in the "Battle of the Sexes" match that had so much riding on it in terms of impacting cultural views of female athletes.
If pressure is something that comes with playing good golf, that’s something a professional golfer has to handle. It’s much better than playing in the first group out and nobody’s watching. I would rather be playing in the last group and feel the pressure all the time.Inbee Park
"I thought it would be a good way to be positive about a difficult situation because attitude is so important," King explained. She said she continued to use the phrase with others. "I thought, 'How could I help the players I was working with and keep it simple?' Because in sports, you have to have these cues that are very, very short. I found it really helped them a lot to start looking at pressure in a different way."
Park, in her own way, has followed King's philosophy: If you're facing pressure, it's actually good fortune.
"This is what I love to do," Park said. "And if pressure is something that comes with playing good golf, that's something a professional golfer has to handle. It's much better than playing in the first group out and nobody's watching. I would rather be playing in the last group and feel the pressure all the time."
There's one other thing Park has done to make what she's trying to do seem less burdensome. She looks at the idea of a Grand Slam as just a bonus.
"I've won six tournaments, three majors. Even if I don't win any more, I'm very happy for this season," she said. "How could you ask for more? Wanting more majors, wanting more wins, almost feels like I think I'm being too greedy."
Still, she really does want this. Once she's on the course, it's back to the simple thoughts that Cho helps her focus on round to round. Process, process, process. Done right by the right personality, that can dilute pressure considerably.
And taking a long view, Park sounds as if she could be channeling King.
"Just the fact that I could have this kind of opportunity is very special," Park said. "If it could happen, my name will be in the history of golf forever."