Inbee Park: Scary Good, Stoic Excellence

In probably the easiest looking win in major championship history, Inbee Park made history. With her win Sunday in the U.S. Women’s Open at the Sebonack Golf Club in Southampton, Long Island, New York, she becomes the first woman to win three majors in a row since Babe Didrickson Zaharias did it in 1950, the formal founding of the LPGA. This is Park’s second U.S. Open victory.

She did not smile until she was walking up to the 18th green, the fans giving her a standing ovation and her 4-stoke victory well in hand. There is a stoicism in the way she plays. She doesn’t celebrate when she makes a good shot or clutch putt and neither does her face change when she hits it into trouble or misses a makeable putt (although she doesn’t miss makeable putts enough so that you can say that she does). Here’s what Paula Creamer, who finished T4 and tied with Angela Stanford as top Americans, had to say about her demeanor: 

Everybody sees her demeanor out there.  She’s the most — you don’t even know if she has a pulse out there half the time.  Doesn’t matter if it’s a good shot or a bad shot, I think I’ve seen her actually smile maybe ten times.  But that’s just who she is and that’s how she plays.  You can’t take that away from her.

You watch me, and I wear my heart on my sleeve.  Everybody’s different.  Does that mean I have to do what she does?  No, not necessarily.  But I think that her demeanor is obviously something that’s very important to her.  She’s one of the best putters I’ve ever seen.  And she just literally makes everything.  When you go against somebody like that, it’s tough to beat.

And that sort of impenetrable “being” can be very intimidating. I.K. Kim, who finished 2nd, said later that she realized that she was trying to do too much on the front nine to catch Inbee.

You know, it’s difficult because you know what you have to do, because I want to play my game, but you can’t really avoid how many shots I’m behind and things like that.  So it’s difficult.  But I just played with everything I’ve got, and that’s all I can really do.

And she felt like she made Inbee comfortable with her fruitless pressing:

I think I could push her a little bit more.  I just felt like I had some momentum.  All the fans were great.  They were just rooting for me because, you know, they do that.  But I just wanted — as even other people said, I wanted to go out and make some drama, and I thought I had a good opportunity.  Four shots, you don’t really know in a major any other tournament, but how she’s playing and putting, it’s just difficult.

I think that’s what I couldn’t really get over on the front nine that I had to do something.  If I just played my game, it would have been fine.

So Yeon Ryu, who won the 2011 U.S. Open, finished 3rd and a full 9 shots out of the lead. That’s how dominant Inbee was:

Well, today’s pin location was so tough.  Even, you know, this green is really, really big and levels so different.  So actually I was struggle with my distance control and the green.

I think Inbee is just playing another golf course.

I think that thing with Inbee, she just ready.  You know, after she won the U.S. Open in 2008, she was a bit struggle with her game.  But she never stop it, she never gave up.  So it is right deserve to her.

When the final putt fell, So Yeon, I.K. Kim and the 2012 winner, Na Yeon Choi, ran out onto the green with the obligatory champagne bottles spewing joy. So Yeon explains why it’s become such a tradition for the Koreans to do that:

Well, you know, it’s really too hard, on the Tour, the overseas, we are Korean, we live in the states, we speak the different language, different culture.  It’s really tough.  [This struck me more as a fact than a complaint.]

We really help each other.  If we know about the really great restaurant, we always going together and have some great time.

Also, we teach some golf skill to every player.  So it’s — I think we have to do.  Also, Inbee, you know, last year I was rookie and Inbee gave me a lot of great advice.  Also she helped me like to rent the house, and how can transfer the airport like that.  So also I have to thank a lot to Inbee, so I really want to celebrate Inbee’s win.

As for Inbee herself, she confessed to nervousness the night before, but said that it vanished once she got on the golf course:

I was really nervous last night at home.  Everywhere I was really nervous, but as soon as I was on the golf course, it somehow made me really feel calm and somehow it really made me concentrate on golf.

Yeah, I played so good this week.  I’m very proud of myself.  I just don’t know what I did.  I mean, I knew what I was playing for, but if I thought about it for once, I probably wouldn’t be able to do it.  It’s a great record, and it hasn’t been broken for over 50 years.  I’ve done it, and I just can’t believe it.

Okay, simple enough. But just how did she manage to stop thinking about it?:

I mean it comes to me from time to time when I’m on the golf course too, but I don’t know.  I think just a lot of experience this week from the tournaments where I was going into the final round, winning a lot of tournaments before this took a little bit of pressure off of me.  I just thought, even if I don’t win this week, it’s okay.  I’ve played very good golf for three days, and I’m just happy that I could actually play for a win tomorrow.  I mean, that’s all I could ask for.

And then there was this transformative moment when she truly realized what she had accomplished. It may come off as hubris at first, but it really is a sense of wonderment and dismay when she projects into her future:

I’ve won a lot of golf tournaments.  I’ve played fantastic golf over the year.  It’s really scary to think what I’m really capable of doing.  I don’t know what my limit is.  Every day I try to play my best, and every day I try to break my record, yeah.

Angela Stanford (T4 and top American with Creamer) put Inbee’s amazing accomplishment of three majors in a row into context:

You know, it’s something I thought Annika would do.  That’s really the only player that I’ve played with out here that I thought would do it.  So I mean, I don’t know how she’s doing it, but obviously I know she’s a great putter and emotionally she really keeps it under control out there.  I’m not [even] sure if she hits it sideways.  I’m pretty sure she hits it pretty straight.

I didn’t think — after Annika retired I didn’t think anybody would ever do it, so it’s pretty impressive.

With the top three spots going to Koreans — Park, Kim and Ryu — the media wondered if there was a need for an American superstar. Angela was, uh, frank:

Well, you know, our Tour is such — it’s just a global Tour.  I’ve just heard it so much and it just makes me so mad because it’s not like the Americans aren’t trying.  I mean, we’re working our tails off.

And you know, to say that — I mean, at some point it makes me mad for the Asians, because it’s like so what are you saying they don’t belong here? They don’t belong on our [Tour]? So, you know, players don’t see it that way.

The media does and it makes it tough for players and really tough on the Americans because we go home thinking, well, gosh, they are just pounding us but we’re doing our best.

It was very gracious of Stanford, as one of the leaders among the Americans, to offer such full-throated support for the Korean contingent and the rest of the global contingent for that matter. Golf has always been one of sports’ greatest meritocracies: If you can post the scores, you can play. We should always celebrate excellence wherever we find it.

So congratulations to Inbee Park and every other player who has the courage to lay it all on the line and is successful. You make all of our lives better by demonstrating the continually expanding realm of possibility.

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