Inbee Park chases history this week at St Andrews.
The day Se Ri Pak won the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open, Inbee Park’s father ran through the house cheering. Park, who was 10 years old at the time, picked up her first golf club only a week later and began a golfing odyssey that takes her to the Home of Golf this week with the opportunity to do what no other golfer has ever done.
Park’s historic pursuit begins Thursday when the LPGA Tour returns to the Old Course at St. Andrews for the RICOH Women’s British Open. The 25-year-old South Korean seeks to become the first golfer – male or female – to win four professional major championships in a single season with a victory on Sunday.
“I'm really looking forward to going there and playing for the fourth major win,” Park said. “Not many people, not many golfers get that kind of opportunity, winning three majors and going for a calendar grand slam at the British Open on such a historic golf course.”
Only Mickey Wright (1961-62) and Tiger Woods (2000-2001) have won four consecutive professional major championships, though not in one calendar year. Bobby Jones won four major championships in a single season in 1930 including two amateur events, then considered majors.
Park, who won the 2012 LPGA Official Money List and Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average, became the first LPGA player in the modern era to win the first three majors in a season at the U.S. Women’s Open in June. Babe Zaharias, the only other player to accomplish the feat, did it in 1950 when she won all three majors played that year – the Titleholders Championship, the Women’s Western Open and the U.S. Women’s Open. Mickey Wright (1961) and Pat Bradley (1986) are the only other players in LPGA history to win three majors in a season, though not consecutively.
“I’m really rooting for Inbee,” said Bradley, who won every major but the U.S. Women’s Open in 1986. “I thought the U.S. Open would be the hardest part for her, but she breezed through it. It feels like destiny for her to do this at St. Andrews.”
Park’s calm demeanor, unique swing and rhythmic putting stroke have taken center stage this season thanks in large part to her dominance in the majors. Her impressive run of consecutive major championship titles began at the Kraft Nabisco Championship in April where Park captured a four-stroke victory before leaping into Poppie’s Pond at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, California.
She continued the streak last month at the Wegmans LPGA Championship, where 36 holes of regulations – and more – were needed on Sunday. Park defeated Catriona Matthew in a three-hole, sudden-death playoff to claim her second major of the season at Locust Hill Country Club in Pittsford, NY. And at the U.S. Women’s Open, Park wowed the golf world when she defeated I.K. Kim by four shots to become only the second LPGA player in history to capture three consecutive major titles.
Now Park will head to the Home of Golf to see if she can complete a feat that so many other golfers, including Hall of Famers, have only dreamt of achieving.
“As a competitor it was always a goal of mine to win the Grand Slam in a season,” said LPGA and World Golf Halls of Fame member Annika Sorenstam. “After having won the first two in 2005 I know the challenges that you face with the expectations, media exposure, etc. To have won three in a row, I can't imagine the pressure she will probably feel.”
The Old Course is no stranger to historic endeavors. Jack Nicklaus strengthened his legacy by capturing two of his three British Opens at St. Andrews and saw his career come full circle at the famous venue when he announced his retirement from professional golf there in 2005. Bobby Jones won his first Open Championship at St. Andrews in 1927 and then began his historic “Grand Slam” run in 1930 with a victory in the British Amateur at St. Andrews, where he was swarmed by spectators and carried on their shoulders for a mile before officers were able to escort him back to the course. Lorena Ochoa won the first women’s professional golf tournament played at the Old Course in 2007.
But if Park can pull off a victory at this week’s RICOH Women’s British Open, it undoubtedly would rank near the top of all the memorable achievements at the Old Course.
“It doesn't get any bigger than that,” Sorenstam said of winning four majors in a season. “Nobody, male or female has won four professional majors in a row in the same season and this would be one of the biggest feats in golf history. The fact that it could be done at St. Andrews and the home of golf would make it that much more special.”
It’s been quite a year overall in 2013 for Park, who has already recorded a total of six victories this season and holds dominant leads in the LPGA Official Money list, Rolex Player of the Year and Vare Trophy for low scoring average races. She is seeking to become the first South Korean to claim Player of the Year honors at season’s end.
Park first burst on the professional golf scene back in 2008 when she won the U.S. Women’s Open at Interlachen Country Club in Edina, Minn. at the age of 19. That victory was a significant milestone for Park in a journey that truly started before she was even born. Park’s grandparents were the first in her family to take up the game of golf and her father, Gun Gyu Park, carried on the tradition.
Inbee’s father and her mother, Sung Kim, moved Inbee and her younger sister, Inah, to the United States when Inbee was 12 years old in order to better allow Inbee to both play golf and complete her studies in school. The family initially settled in Eustis, Fla. where Inbee’s mother had found a Korean golf coach for Inbee and Inah, who went on to play college golf at the University of Southern California from 2008-2012. The transition to life in the U.S. proved a little difficult for the Park’s oldest daughter, who spoke no English when she arrived in Florida. But after two years of being the only Korean family in town, Inbee said that she became fluent in English and her golf career flourished as well.
Park won nine events on the American Junior Golf Association (AJGA) circuit and at the age of 14, she won the 2002 U.S. Girls Junior Championship. She was the second youngest player to win the event and the following year, she was a semifinalist at the U.S. Women’s Amateur.
After winning the U.S. Women’s Open in 2008, Park went almost four years without a victory on the LPGA Tour. She broke that winless spell with a victory at the 2012 Evian Masters thanks in large part to a renewed confidence and passion for the game that she developed by traveling last year with her swing coach and fiance, Gi Hyeob Nam.
Many eyes are expected to be focused on St. Andrews this week to see whether Park can indeed achieve an accomplishment that for so long has seemed nearly impossible. Park will attempt to capture a historic victory and perhaps create a moment much like the one that occurred at her home outside Seoul, South Korea nearly 15 years ago when a young 10-year-old girl was inspired to follow a dream.
“My dad always loved to watch women’s golf so he followed Se Ri every week when she was playing,” Park said. “I remember it was very early in the morning. I heard a scream outside because Se Ri had holed a putt to win. My sister and I were surprised so we ran outside and we saw her playing.
“Now I go to these tournaments where a lot of Korean galleries come watching. The little kids say, ‘I started playing golf watching you.’ Hearing that, I think, I'm only 25 years old, and I feel a little old hearing that. And I feel really happy that I could inspire somebody like Se Ri did to me, being in the kind of position where I've always dreamed of, where I've always wanted to go. I think a lot of the little kids give me a lot of inspiration and motivation to go out there and perform better for them.”