Golf

‘Heartbreaker’ Inbee Park gets in Hall of Fame, goes for history

“Inbee (Park) has been an absoulte heartbreaker inside the ropes with the ability to close, especially in major championships,” says Yakima’s Paige MacKenzie, a former LPGA Tour player who is an analyst for The Golf Channel.
“Inbee (Park) has been an absoulte heartbreaker inside the ropes with the ability to close, especially in major championships,” says Yakima’s Paige MacKenzie, a former LPGA Tour player who is an analyst for The Golf Channel. The Associated Press

South Korea’s Inbee Park has an assortment of nicknames — ones befitting the many emotions experienced in professional golf.

One is “Buddha Sculpture” — clearly a nod to her elegant yet stone-faced expressions, on and off the course.

Another one is “Silent Assassin” — her personal favorite. She has quietly rolled in many tournament-clinching putts that would have sent others into a cheering frenzy.

The last one directly correlates to her first name: Inbee, through English translation, means “Queen Bee.”

Right now, the former No. 1 player in the world might be sharing the hive with other buzzing superstars, notably current top-ranked golfer Lydia Ko, who leads this next generation of fearless performers.

“I really hadn’t felt like I was a veteran, or a little bit on the older side ... until last year,” Park said. “I am still in my 20s, and somehow I do feel old because there are so many teenagers that are playing so good.”

But this week at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Sahalee Country Club, Park is the recognized mother bee, whether she is able to win the major championship or not.

Her plate is full. Consider:

▪ Park, the tournament’s three-time defending champion, is vying to become the first woman in history to win the same major championship four consecutive times, breaking a tie with Patty Berg (Titleholders Championship, 1937-39) and Annika Sorenstam (Women’s PGA Championship, 2003-05).

If Park wins, she would join Tom Morris Jr. (British Open, 1868-72 — the Open wasn’t held in 1871) and Walter Hagen (PGA Championship, 1924-27) on the men’s side as the only golfers to accomplish that feat.

▪ This week has special significance off the course as well: As soon as she hits her first tee ball Thursday, Park will become the 25th woman eligible for the LPGA Tour Hall of Fame, based on performance criteria. The last woman inducted was fellow countrywoman Se Ri Park, in 2007.

Inbee Park turns 28 in July.

“It’s a great week to reflect on your achievements, and I hope she (Park) can enjoy it,” said Sorenstam, who went into the LPGA Tour Hall of Fame in 2003 and is a television commentator for NBC Sports.

“She’s worked so hard. Her record speaks for itself.”

If Park’s career somehow ended after KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, it would go down as one of the best runs in women’s golf history.

Her seven major titles ties her for seventh all-time behind Berg’s record 15. At 19, Park became the youngest golfer to win the U.S. Women’s Open when she posted a four-stroke victory in 2008 over Helen Afredsson at Interlachen Country Club in Minnesota.

Park’s 17 LPGA Tour wins rank just outside the top 30. And her 91 weeks ranked No. 1 in the world is the third-longest run all-time behind Lorena Ochoa (158 weeks) and Yani Tseng (109).

“Inbee has been an absoulte heartbreaker inside the ropes with the ability to close, especially in major championships,” said Yakima’s Paige MacKenzie, a former LPGA Tour player who is an analyst for The Golf Channel. “Her killer instinct in the heat of competition may be what the fans see, but she has a (kindhearted) disposition, and is well thought of by her peers for her sense of humor and friendship.”

Park is the superstar nobody says a bad word about — and one that younger South Korean golfers have latched onto for LPGA Tour advice.

When she married longtime swing coach Gi Hyeob in 2014, LPGA Tour players Na Yeon Choi, In Kyung Kim, Ji Young Oh and So Yeon Ryu served as her bridesmaids.

At last month’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship media day, Park and Ryu made an extended weekend of their trip together to Seattle. In fact, Park threw out the first pitch of a Seattle Mariners game at Safeco Field against the Los Angeles Angels.

“I was ready for smiling and laughing,” Ryu said.

Why? Because Park had mentioned over and over how much of a flop she thought she would be pitching a baseball.

“It’s not a birdie putt,” Park said.

From in front of the mound, she delivered a high pitch that landed softly in the mitt of Mariners rookie Dae-Ho Lee, who also is from South Korea.

“I threw 20 (practice) balls in Korea,” Park said. “The next day, I was so sore, I could not feel my right arm.”

Park is not coming into the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship in the best form. A notoriously slow starter, Park has been hampered by a thumb injury that could linger the rest of the season.

And this is the longest victory drought she’s had to start a season on the LPGA Tour since winning the Evian Masters in July 2012.

But Park is hoping to ride the momentum of a “special week” at Sahalee to a fourth KPMG Women’s PGA Championship victory, and possibly a run at a gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Rio.

“Going for this four times in a row — that is something special,” Park said. “But like I did the last three years, I did not think so much about defending it, or the history, or the things that are complicated. I tried to play my own game, and the rest took care of itself.”

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