The Unflappable Inbee Park, Pursuing Historic Third Victory May 28, 2019 | CHARLESTON, S.C. By Ron Sirak

Two-time champion Inbee Park has 8 top 10s in 12 U.S. Women's Open starts. (USGA/Chris Keane)

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Inbee Park is unaccustomed to looking up at names on the leader board. In 13 LPGA seasons, she’s won 19 times with a pair of U.S. Women’s Opens among her seven major titles. And in 2016, she took the gold as golf returned to the Olympics. But Park can find solace in the fact that the only names above her in the USGA record book going into the 74th U.S. Women’s Open are legends.

When Park tees it up Thursday in the first round at the Country Club of Charleston, she will be chasing history. Park trails only Annika Sorenstam, Hollis Stacy, Susie Berning and Babe Zaharias, who have each won the U.S. Women’s Open three times, and Mickey Wright and Betsy Rawls, who have four wins each, on the all-time list.

“It's really great to come to the U.S. Women's Open,” Park said Tuesday at Charleston. “Such special memories in my career, and especially the last one I won in 2013. It was my third major in a row for that year, and becoming two-time champion of the U.S. Women's Open is just something that's unforgettable in my golfing career.”

Then, without saying she’s aware that she stands on the doorstep of history, Park indicated she’s fully aware of what’s at stake this week in the sweltering South Carolina heat.

“If I can write my name one more time on the trophy, that will be just something unreal,” she said in her understated style.

Three-Time U.S. Women's Open Champions
Babe Zaharias 1948, 1950, 1954
Susie Berning 1968, 1972, 1973
Hollis Stacy 1977, 1978, 1984
Annika Sorenstam 1995, 1996, 2006

The USGA and Park have been a perfect match. The 30-year-old native of the Republic of Korea won the 2002 U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship and was runner-up two other times. In 2008, at 19, she became the youngest winner of the Women’s Open, breaking the mark set in 1998 by 20-year-old Se Ri Pak, the godmother of Korean golf.

Park added that second Women’s Open title in 2013, but even when Park wasn’t winning, she was threatening with six other top-10 finishes, including ninth last year at Shoal Creek.

The strength of Park’s game fits very well with the demands of a USGA championship: She keeps her ball out of trouble; she keeps her composure and she makes putts. Those three things are a killer combo that will win a lot of championships and could serve her very well here.

“The first time playing the golf course yesterday,” Park said. “I really think this golf course is a second-shot golf course. The tee shots, there are a few fairway bunkers we need to avoid, except the fairways are actually quite generous off the tee.”

Park, who is not long off the tee, will hit driver often. Because Charleston is not overly long and the fairways should be fast and firm in the heat, she should have reasonable approach clubs into the greens. And that’s the shot everyone here seems to agree is crucial.

“Starting from the second shot, it gets really difficult,” Park said. “There are a lot of the greens that have the false fronts where we need to carry, but at the same time, we need to stop the ball.”

Park, who for more than a decade has been considered one of the best putters on any tour, has struggled on the greens this year. Beginning in 2013, she was No. 1 in putts per green in regulation (P/GIR) on the LPGA Tour three times and No. 3 two other times. This year, she’s No. 64 in P/GIR and No. 78 in total putts after never being worse than No. 20.  

The oddity is that Park’s ball-striking stats are the best they have ever been. She is No. 8 in fairways hit – she’s normally around No. 20 – and No. 9 in GIR. Only once has she finished better than that.

“I haven't been really putting well this year at all,” Park said with typical honesty. “I have been striking the ball really, really good this year, probably better than any other years on tour. Just the putter wasn't really there. That's really been the disappointing part of my game this year. Other than that, it has been really, really good.”

Park said that the LPGA West Coast swing played on mostly poa annua greens made it difficult for her “to see what I was doing wrong – whether it was the greens, whether it was me, whether it was the stroke, whether it was the break.” She hopes work she did recently in Korea on bent greens will translate into success.

“I really thought that my putting has improved a little bit a couple weeks ago in Korea when I putted in perfect conditions,” Park said. “So hopefully, I can get that feeling going this week and putt a little better and see the ball dropping in the hole a little bit more.”

Putting will be important on the massive greens at Charleston, especially lag putting. And lag putting has always been one of Park’s strength. Truth be told, every aspect of putting has always been one of her strengths.

If she can find that stroke this week, come Sunday night she could find her name in the USGA record book alongside Sorenstam, Stacy, Berning and Zaharias and right behind Rawls and Wright.  As she said, that would be something unreal – and unforgettable.

Ron Sirak is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA digital channels.

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