VIDEO: South Korea's Inbee Park qualifies for LPGA Tour Hall of Fame
The usually stone-faced, steel-nerved Inbee Park was feeling enough jitters Wednesday night to keep her up well past midnight.
Hours later, she was about to tee off for the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Sahalee Country Club — a tournament for which she was the three-time defending champion.
But it wasn’t just any ordinary opening round: Once she completed it, she would become the 24th member of the LPGA Tour’s Hall of Fame.
Like parents do, her father, Gun Gyu, sensed his daughter wasn’t quite herself Thursday morning.
So he made a sentimental suggestion that helped put the South Korean star in a great state of mind: Play each hole as if it represented one of her 18 years in golf.
“The first hole, dad told me to think about when you first picked up the club — and take every hole as every year and kind of remember what you have done,” Park said.
“There were so many things to think about — so many memorable moments. It was such a nice experience to have for the last 18 holes.”
The score will go down as a 1-over-par 72 — not Park’s best. The seven-time major champion trailed leader Brooke Henderson by five shots, but was only three shots out of second place after the first round.
In many ways, the 72 doesn’t matter all that much — although Park was pleased with the way she battled through some tough stretches of holes, particularly on the back nine.
It was certainly about remembering her journey: From a kid who hit five buckets of balls on her first day at a driving range in South Korea to becoming the youngest Hall of Fame member in history at age 27.
“I think sometimes she doesn’t get the credit she deserves,” American veteran Juli Inkster said. “I am really proud of her.”
Of course, many were curious to see if Park would treat this as a victory lap, given the state of her injured left thumb.
For the first seven holes, Park was near-flawless, hitting every fairway and green in regulation — and making birdies on both par-5 holes to get to 2 under.
But once she hit her first off-line shot — her drive at the eighth hole stayed right, and sank in deep rough — the rest of the round became a grind-fest.
“It was kind of expected, because … (the thumb) usually gets more tired at the end of the day,” Park said.
She made her first bogey at No. 8, but rebounded by canning a 25-foot birdie putt on the next hole.
All the while, her demeanor never wavered. If her thumb was throbbing, her face did not let on. She was focused and determined.
“She knew it was a really important day, and it really got her through today as well,” said Brad Beecher, Park’s longtime caddie.
She rolled in a 15-footer to save par at No. 11, but bogeyed two of the next three holes to fall to even par.
On No. 17, her tee shot at the 160-yard par 3 barely cleared the pond, but kicked up and rolled 3 feet past the cup. But she missed it — really the only bad putt all day.
And on the finishing hole, a long, uphill par 4, she was so far back, she needed to hit 3-wood to get to the green. Instead, it went left into deep rough, and she ran her 22-footer to save par past the hole.
“I had to kind of grind out there today,” Park said. “I’m not going to hit it as far as I usually do. I’m not going to be able to shape (shots) the way I want to … but I was really happy with my putting.”
After she tapped in her final putt, Park became a Hall of Famer — at 6:45 p.m. Both her husband, Gi Hyeob Nam, and LPGA Tour commissioner Michael Whan brought her a bouquet of flowers.
At the back of the 18th green, a handful of players, including fellow Hall of Famers Annika Sorenstam and Se Ri Pak, gave her hugs as 30 family members and friends surrounded her.
Park said she will be on the tee Friday morning to continue in the tournament.
“This was nervous and special at the same time,” Park said. “It’s going to take deep in my heart. It’s definitely the utmost gift that I’ve had as a professional golfer.”
Henderson was one of the 10 golfers to post under-par scores. And her round was the most profitable of the day — she aced the 13th hole to win a new Kia K900 for her sister, Brittany.
And the Canadian teenager closed with birdies at Nos. 8 and 9 to finish off a 67, and take her first overnight lead at a major.
“A good start,” Brooke Henderson said.
KPMG Women’s PGA Championship
At Sahalee Country Club, Sammamish
Six players tied at