Inbee Park was 19 when she became the youngest player to win the U.S. Women’s Open, not very experienced at golf or at life.
She had much to learn after a victory that hinted at boundless promise. It took more than four years of wilting under pressure and tinkering with her swing before the South Korean earned another title.
The talented teen from the 2008 Open has blossomed into a dominant veteran, the favorite heading into this week’s U.S. Women’s Open. Ranked No. 1, Park has won the first two majors this year and her past two tournaments.
And she’s at peace with her game and her world.
“The weeks that I’ve been having recently, I don’t think I really need to think about golf outside the golf course,” Park said. “I’m just very happy when I’m off the golf course.”
Starting Thursday at Sebonack Golf Club in Southhamption, N.Y., on Long Island, Park will seek to make history. When there have been at least four majors in a season, no player has ever won the first three of the year.
She’ll take on a course hosting its first major. Sebonack, designed by Jack Nicklaus and Tom Doak, opened in 2006 with views of the Great Peconic Bay. Its big bunkers and undulating greens offer a links-style challenge. The fairways are broad, but just landing the ball in them may not do much good; placement could be crucial.
“It feels like the last few U.S. Opens, it’s all been how straight you can drive the ball, and that is kind of who has won the tournament,” said second-ranked Stacy Lewis. “So I like this year that you don’t have to drive it perfect off the tees, but you’ve got to play smart into the greens.”
Park has relied on her putting to win five times this season and seven of her past 23 starts since last year.
“I was just hitting it everywhere. I had to get it up and down from everywhere,” Park said.
Her drives straightened out, Park has gone from saving pars to making birdies.
Some of her struggles were bad habits, but some was pressure. She remembers how she would spend much of Thursday and Friday worrying about whether she’d make the cut.
After winning the 2008 U.S. Women’s Open, she went more than four years before her next victory at the Evian Masters in July 2012.
“When you don’t know how to handle the pressure, it’s not a good feeling at all,” she said.
Working with a mental coach, she’s learned how to empty her head of those thoughts. Away from the course, it’s easy to relax.
Sebonack may be new to golf majors, but the challenges from the local conditions are well known. When neighboring Shinnecock Hills hosted the 2004 U.S. Open won by Retief Goosen in the wind, nobody broke par in the final round.
“I think this course, par is your friend,” said Yani Tseng, who has five major titles but has yet to win a U.S. Women’s Open.
Two-time champ Juli Inkster, who turned 53 on Monday, will play on a special exemption in her 34th U.S. Women’s Open, which breaks the record set by Marlene Hagge.
2016 Open awarded
The U.S. Women’s Open will return to California in 2016 for the first time in more than 30 years.
The U.S. Golf Association announced Wednesday that CordeValle Golf Club in San Martin, Calif., southeast of San Jose, has been awarded the 2016 championship. The tournament will take place from July 7-10 that year.
It also was played at the San Diego Country Club in Chula Vista in 1964 and Del Paso Country Club in Sacramento in 1982.