While golf fans ponder the major drought Tiger Woods is mired in and wonder whatever became of Rory McIlroy’s presumed ascension, there is something special afoot over in the women’s ranks which deserves a little attention.
Inbee Park is trying to go 3for3 in women’s professional majors this season – an achievement that hasn’t been attained since Babe Didrickson Zaharias in 1950 won the only three majors that existed in the inaugural season of the LGPA Tour. Hall of Famers Mickey Wright (1961) and Pat Bradley (1986) are the only other women to win three majors in a season.
Heady company for the soon-to-be 25-year-old Korean. But it’s a sorority Park seems unfazed at the prospect of joining after a pristine 5-under-par 67 to take the early lead in Thursday’s opening round of the U.S. Women’s Open at Sebonack Golf Club.
“I think I am in the zone,” Park said after recording six birdies and only one bogey.
That kind of zone is a rarity in golf. Woods once made it seem simple, as did Jack Nicklaus before him and Ben Hogan for a spell and Bobby Jones. But golf traditionally isn’t a game designed to be dominated week after week, major after major.
Women’s golf has had its share of great players take the stage in recent years. Annika Sorenstam was the equal of Woods for a decade before she decided to abruptly retire. Lorena Ochoa seemed the likely heir, but she too called it quits prematurely at the top of her game. The came Yani Tseng, who won five of 15 majors from 2008-11 before stalling under the stress of being No. 1.
Now it’s Park’s time. She signaled her potential with a victory at the 2008 U.S. Women’s Open six years after winning the U.S. Girls’ Junior and now she has put together an all-around game to match her exemplary putting.
“I’m trying to enjoy where I am and trying to keep this going as long as I can,” said Park, who already has five LPGA victories this season including the Kraft Nabisco and Wegman’s LPGA Championship for the first two legs of what the LPGA is now calling a five-major season.
Only seven times in women’s golf history has a player started the year with wins in the first two majors, and it’s an impressive roster of Hall of Famers – Patty Berg (twice), Zaharias, Wright, Sandra Haynie, Bradley and Sorenstam.
Park still has a long way to go before she can earn enshrinement into that club, but she’s got the full respect and attention of her peers with her peerless play.
“It’s frustrating for the rest of us, that’s for sure,” said Stacy Lewis, who lost her No. 1 ranking to Park back in April. “I know people like to see somebody make history and do all of that, but for players it’s frustrating to see someone sit there and win week after week after week. But she’s making good putts and she’s steady. Every time I feel like she may have an OK round and then the next day she’s up there on the leaderboard again.”
Thursday morning on Long Island, N.Y., provided a clear snapshot of just how fickle the golf gods can be in ascribing greatness. On her first hole of the day (Sebonack’s 10th), Park fired her approach to within a foot of the flag to set up her first birdie and launch her round.
In the group immediately behind her was women’s golf former can’t-miss kid, Michelle Wie. As a teenage amateur Wie threatened in so many majors that she was followed with Tiger-like reverence. A decade and still zero major victories later, the 23-year-old Wie played on the heels of Park and took a quadruple-bogey 8 on that same opening hole. Wie had to rally with three birdies in her last four holes Thursday just to shoot 80.
So neither achieving nor maintaining greatness is any guarantee. But what Park is trying to do would be legend. A victory this week would send her to the Women’s British Open at St. Andrews in August for the chance to do what no other female golfer has ever done – win the Grand Slam. Forget the LPGA’s contrived fifth major at the Evian Masters in France this fall. Park could win the four most recognizable championships in women’s golf, completing the sweep at the game’s most famous venue where it all began centuries ago.
If Tiger Woods or any other male golfer were vying for the same thing, it would be the most talked about subject in sports.
The least we can do to give Park her due this weekend is to take notice. A great feat is a great treat for all of us.