Woman of the Year: Four-time Major winner Inbee Park
It would have to take something special to knock one of our Solheim heroines off this particular top spot.
In Inbee Park we got it.
Despite the lack of headlines Park’s achievements, winning the year’s first three Majors, are something that many of us will never likely see again.
Only Babe Zaharias in 1950, the birth year of the LPGA, has won the first three Majors, which back then completed the Major season. Mickey Wright landed the last three of the 1961 season and then the first of the following year while Pat Bradley’s three straight successes spanned the 1985-86 seasons.
In the modern era, when the Women’s British Open was added in 2001, only Annika Sorenstam has come close, capturing the first two.
At the close of the 2011 season all the talk was whether a certain player could capture the Grand Slam. That player was Yani Tseng who had just won her fifth Major while still 22, the youngest player male or female to do so.
At that point in time Park had the 2008 US Open to her name. She was the youngest winner at just 19 and the early success paid its toll.
The following year she did nothing in the Majors, had seven missed cuts and finished 50th on the Money List as the pressure to prove that the four-shot victory at Interlachen was no fluke.
Park then went to the Japan Q School and won twice on their tour and, from here, the confidence slowly picked up.
In 2010 she ended the year as the game’s 12th best player, slipped to 23rd the following year but then rocketed up to 4th last year after wins in Malaysia and the Evian and no less than six runners-up spots.
And then this year happened – six victories by the end of June including three Majors, the new World No 1 and the player who now strikes fear into everyone in the field.
A big part of Park’s success is down to putting. Her swing is almost in slow motion on the way back and she is relatively short off the tee but the closer she gets to the green, the better she becomes. Her stats are nothing out of the ordinary until you reach her Putts per Greens in Regulation. Here she is a clear No 1 and she rarely takes more than 30 putts per round.
Part of the magic is her demeanour. A birdie putt is met by the slightest of acknowledgements and the rhythm in the stroke very rarely changes, much like the rest of her game.
Putting guru Dave Stockton says that putting begins in the mind and that ‘mentally she is in a league of her own’.
The generalisation over the recent Korean domination is explained easily by the players’ work ethic. Park is not a big practiser, she prefers to play in a lot of tournaments on the LPGA and Japan to find her rhythm and on tournament weeks she will take the Monday or Tuesday off.
There is also nothing too over-reaching from her mental coach who gives Park just one thing to work on and think about on the course.
After the third round of the Kraft she rang to tell her father, who was on his way to the airport, not to come as it might make her want the win too much. Away from the course she has also got the balance right.
And that is largely down to her fiancé and coach Gi Hyeob Nam, a former Korean PGA Tour player.
Nam is a constant companion on tour and the pair have been together since 2008, in the middle of 2011 he took over the coaching duties and Park’s game has been on an upward curve ever since.
Away from winning Majors there is also time for the piano, movies, skiing and shopping, occasionally with her good friend and World No 7 Na Yeon Choi.
There is a nice story in the second of her three Major wins on the 36-hole Sunday of the LPGA Championship where Park and Nam sat under a tree in between rounds and had lunch together. A few hours later, after a late wobble, she would hole an 18-footer at the third play-off hole to deny Catriona Matthew.
Otherwise there are no meddling parents who, with the best of intentions, have got in the way of a number of the world’s best players elsewhere.
Her grandparents were the first in the family to take up the game.Now they all play and her sister hopes to feature on the Korean tour next year. Park herself began at 12 and, two years later, moved to the States with her mother to study and play golf.
At the time she spoke no English and the aim was as much to focus on her education as her golf. She now speaks outstanding English and is charm personified in interviews and press conferences.
Her mother owns a company which makes milk and water bottles. Park has invested $2m in it. Her father owns a another which makes bottling labels. Both are successful and appreciate the space needed for their daughter.
Her Major wins this year have come in different ways. At the Kraft she played near-perfect golf to win by four. At the LPGA Championship she dropped three shots in the last six and barely hit a fairway in the fourth round. Come the extra holes a change in outlook turned her fortunes.
“I really cleared my head and just looked at the fairway and I just smashed it, and it was going in the middle every time. I should have done that before and I wouldn’t have had to play three more holes,” she said.
Then at Sebonack on Long Island, with history beckoning, Park prevailed by four shots, in what was a welcome first.
After the third round of the Kraft she rang to tell her father, who was on his way to the airport, not to come as it might make her want the win too much. He had to settle for having a bottle of water, taken from Poppie’s Pond, poured over him.
In 1998 he ran through the house cheering when Se Ri Pak won the US Open, 15 years later he was at Sebonack to witness his own daughter achieve her remarkable hat trick.