ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Inbee Park once felt she could walk down the streets of Seoul as the No. 1 player in women’s golf without being recognized. Now she can’t even make it through a toll booth.
The week before she set out to make history at St. Andrews, Park, 25, went home to South Korea to visit family and friends. She was surprised by the number of people who met her at the airport and who looked her way when she was out in public dressed in regular clothes.
“I was driving by the toll gate and some lady was giving me a toll ticket and she was like, ‘Oh, are you Inbee Park?’ And she was stopping my car,” Park said Tuesday. “It’s cool to be recognized and to have a lot of fans. And I think that really helps me.”
It helps to be on the verge of doing something no other golfer in this Royal & Ancient game has ever achieved.
Slam or not, Park has a shot at something grand. On an Old Course that is filled with history, she goes after an unprecedented fourth consecutive major this year at the Women’s British Open. Park is the heavy favorite at St. Andrews, much like Tiger Woods when he won on the Old Course in 2000 to complete the career Grand Slam.
The gray old town doesn’t have the same energy level as when a claret jug is on offer, though Park’s name is part of every conversation. Woods (2000-01) and Mickey Wright (1961-62) are the only players to have won four consecutive professional majors, though never in the same calendar year. Woods was the last player to win three consecutive majors in a single season.
The debate is whether to call it a Grand Slam if Park wins. The LPGA Tour added a fifth major this year, the Evian Championship in France. The modern version of a Grand Slam is about four majors. The original version of the Grand Slam is about winning them all.
It’s a nice problem to have.
“If it could happen, it’s something that I will never forget,” Park said. “My name will be in the history of golf forever, even after I die.”
She is somewhere between unstoppable and unbeatable.
In technical terms, she is driving the ball straighter and her putting stroke is among the purest in women’s golf. What sets her apart is a calm demeanor and a unique outlook for someone who has no reason to think she can’t win every time she tees it up. But the higher the pressure, the lower her expectations. That’s the formula she took to the U.S. Women’s Open.
“I kept thinking it’s OK if I don’t win,” she said. “I’ve already won five times, and just wanting more is wanting too much.”
As far as the attention, Stacy Lewis feels that’s one area where Park deserves more. The star of this show didn’t get much of a turnout for her news conference after a pro-am round Tuesday on the Old Course. The room was not even half full.
“I think for what Inbee is doing right now, she’s not getting the credit that she deserves for it,” Lewis said. “If somebody was doing this on the men’s tour, it would be talked about over and over and over again for a month before the major – not just a couple of days before.”
Maybe that will help Park, although she is well aware of what’s at stake this week.
The attention she received at home in South Korea – her gifts included a gold putter and a red Ferrari that she gets to keep for one year – was nothing like what Se Ri Pak endured after her blockbuster rookie season in 1998. The media crush was so great that Pak was hospitalized briefly for exhaustion.
Park only got stopped at a toll booth. And she still had to pay the fare.
It was rare proof that she’s not much different from anyone else.
Or is she?
Park can become the first golfer to win four majors in a single year. The stage is St. Andrews, the most historic golf course on earth.
“You would think after winning two of them it would faze her a little bit,” Lewis said. “But obviously at the U.S. Open, it didn’t. I don’t know. Inbee is playing so good this year, and she’s so steady. You wouldn’t know whether she’s winning a tournament or whether she’s losing it, and that’s what you need in a major.
“As a player, you’d like to know if she’s human, to see if she actually feels the nerves like the rest of us do.”