ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Inbee Park caught the bad end of the draw at St. Andrews, made worse by not having her best golf.
Before she can think about a chance to make history as the first golfer to win four professional majors in the same season, Park faced a more immediate concern Friday afternoon in the Women’s British Open – how to make up an eight-shot deficit against Na Yeon Choi.
“I’m so far back,” Park said after a birdie on the final hole to salvage 1-over-par 73 that left her closer to the cut line than the lead. “We need some tough conditions.”
The last time there was talk about a Grand Slam in this area of Scotland was 11 years ago, across the Firth of Forth at Muirfield, where Tiger Woods was going for the third leg of the slam. A nasty storm that arrived without warning blew him off course to an 81 in the third round and that was the end of it.
This wind at St. Andrews was the strongest of the week, though nothing out of the ordinary.
Choi played four groups behind Park and turned in a command performance, making six birdies for 5-under 67 that gave her a one-shot lead over Miki Saiki going into the weekend. Saiki set the Old Course record for the Women’s British Open with a 66 in the morning, where the only nuisance was a few bursts of showers.
Choi’s 67 was 8.4 shots better than the average score of those who played in the afternoon, and one of only three rounds in the 60s. Conditions were so demanding that when Choi was asked to give details of her six birdies, she couldn’t recall much further back than the 17th hole.
“Five hours out there, this kind of weather, it’s hard to remember,” she said.
It’s a round Park would like to forget, one that will make her quest even more difficult to add to her trio of majors
“A little bit of everything wasn’t working well out there today,” Park said. “I don’t feel like I played horrible today. A little bit unlucky with the draw, not playing in the morning when it’s lovely. But that’s the way it is.”
Her problems started on the opening hole, when her approach over the Swilcan Burn rode the wind and bounced beyond the green some 50 feet from the flag. Her chip only got halfway there, and she two-putted for bogey.
Park was never under par at any point in her round. A birdie on the sixth was offset by a three-putt bogey on the 10th. A birdie on the 12th was followed by a bogey on the 13th, in part due to a bad break. On the toughest driving hole on the back nine, Park hit her best tee shot - only for it to roll into a sand-filled divot. Her approach came up just short of the green, and she hit putter down the slope and 10 feet past the cup.
Her approach to the 17th ran up the left side of the Road Hole Bunker and left her about 60 feet, and she hit another poor lag - short and 8 feet to the right - leading to her second three-putt of the round, and fourth of the tournament.
At least she still had 36 holes - and plenty of hope - remaining to get back in the race. It was tough for everyone in the afternoon - except for Choi, who had a score that looked as if she were on the New Course - and Park isn’t ruling herself out.
Neither is anyone else.
“The tough, gritty players can win this,” Stacy Lewis said after a hard-fought 72 left her five shots behind. “Anybody under par is not out of this.”
Morgan Pressel took another step toward locking up a spot on the Solheim Cup team with a 70 in the morning, leaving her two shots out of the lead. She now can think squarely about the Women’s British Open, and perhaps adding a second major to the Kraft Nabisco Championship she won in 2007 as an 18-year-old.
Nicole Castrale, also making a last-ditch effort to make the Solheim Cup team, shot 34 on the tough back nine for a 70 and was in the group at 7-under 137 that included Jee Young Lee and Suzann Pettersen.
Choi is a former U.S. Women’s Open champion, so she has proved she can handle difficult conditions. What helped was having her entire team with her this week - notably her Irish coach, Robin Symes, and his friend, who is working as a caddie. Her game management coaches, Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott, also are at St. Andrews.
She had to handle the blustery wind by herself.
“I had a daily goal, so I just tried to stick with the goal,” Choi said. “It could be like par is 74 or 75 today. But I didn’t care - par 3, par 4, par 5, doesn’t matter to me. I just try to play one shot at a time, and I think that’s why I had great results.”
Even as the second round was finishing, it was clear this was a special round.
Birdies were mainly available on the outward nine, and it was all about hanging on from the 12th through the 17th holes. Choi hit a 3-hybrid off the tee on the 16th and a 3-wood into the green, and she hit driver and 3-wood to finish just short of the 17th green in two. From about 45 yards, she putted the ball to 3 feet for a tough par.
Park spoke about having nerves before she teed off Thursday. She conceded after the second round she felt the pressure of this historic chance when she first arrived at St. Andrews. She didn’t see it as a burden, but an opportunity, saying that no matter what happens this week, it would teach her to handle any situation the rest of her career.
“When you experience something big like this, some kind of big pressure like this, you’re just really not afraid of any kind of pressure,” Park said. “How can it get bigger than this? Anything is going to be less than this.”
After making birdie on the 18th, she did an interview with ESPN and then Golf Channel. After that, she stopped for a group of Korean TV reporters, who shouted instructions on where she should stand and to the two employees holding microphones. When she spoke to 10 reporters afterward, someone asked if she imagined having so much media gathered around her to ask so many questions.
“Well, this is pretty much the only week I’m going to get that much, so I should enjoy this moment,” Park said.