It’s been a little over a month since Inbee Park walked off the 18th green at Royal Birkdale Golf Club. Yet, the memory still gnaws at her.
Every time she sees Mo Martin, she’s right back to those final five holes on Sunday in Southport – the ones she can’t seem to evict from her mental coffers. The great ones always remember their failures more than their successes and Park’s no different in that regard.
The scene was set that Sunday for Park to do what she couldn’t do the year before and win the Ricoh Women’s British Open. She walked off the 13th green as the leader at 1-under-par with par-5s coming up on Nos. 15, 17 and 18. Five straight pars would have gotten her into a playoff, and a birdie would have earned her the fifth major she covets.
After a bogey on the par-3 14th, she was still in prime position needing only a birdie and three pars with two reachable par-5s and another par-5 coming in. But the South Korean who calmly closed the season’s first three majors a season prior couldn’t close this time, making three pars in a row and bogeying the last hole to lose by two to Mo Martin, who eagled the last.
“I think that’s kind of a tournament I can’t really forget this year. I think it’s been the last round that I didn’t play well, and I had a really good chance,” Park said. “I don’t know when that kind of opportunity’s going to come back again. I kind of still think about it, especially when I see Mo. Yeah, it’s hard. It’s tough to forget, but probably the week after was the hardest.”
She didn’t have unrealistic expectations of setting the world on fire like she had in 2013. She knew it’d be essentially impossible to match the three-major win streak she started 2013 on, but winless through three majors? That wasn’t going to sit well, and it hasn’t. The next event she played – the Meijer LPGA Classic Presented by Kraft – brought similar disappointment, losing in a playoff to rookie, Mirim Lee.
But Park’s game is sharp, major worthy, and she could be on the cusp of rectifying the disappointing Sunday walk in Southport, England with the same winning stroll up the 18th on Sunday that she made a year ago here in Rochester. She certainly had the look of a major champion on Friday when she tied the low round of her career in a major with a 6-under-par 66 and played her way into the final group on Saturday.
“I just came so close the last two weeks. I feel like something is around the corner,” she said.
As crazy as it sounds, Park – the world’s No. 3 player - believes she has actually hit the ball better in 2014 than she did when she penciled her name all over the record books with one of the greatest seasons in women’s golf history with three majors and six wins. The impetus for the difference this year in her estimation?
The flatstick. She’s averaging essentially the same putts per round – 29.09 as opposed to 29.05 a year ago – but she’s hitting the ball closer on the greens she says and hasn’t seen that translate into birdies.
She was particularly flustered with the putter after a 31-putt even par performance in round one here in Rochester, so Friday on a couple holes she just decided not to use it. She pitched in from the greenside bunker on the par-5 14th for an eagle and then again on the 1st hole – her 10th of the day – from just off the green to shoot the second best round of the day with a 6-under-par 66 to vault into a tie for 2nd.
“Quite different from yesterday, where yesterday nothing really wanted to drop for me, and today it was just falling from outside the greens,” she said. “So my putter decided not to be used today that much.”
She wasn’t 100 percent sure, but she doesn’t remember that ever happening before in a round.
“A bunker and chip shot? I don’t think so,” Park said when asked. “I can’t even remember when I holed in from a bunker. I think it’s been a while.”
The last two majors this season Park’s averaged 32.75 putts per round on the week – almost four strokes higher than her average. In her three major wins last year she averaged 28.08 putts per round. That’s been the issue, but the major venues also haven’t suited her game like a year prior.
Mission Hills Country Club, where she had won the Kraft Nabisco Championship in 2013, was lengthened for the 2014 event by 249 yards to 6,769 yards – the second longest course of the year to this point. The switch to Monroe Golf Club here from Locust Hills has rewarded the bombers as the rough’s down, the yardage up and the approaches tougher. That doesn’t fit Park’s game, who might have the best short game of any woman on planet earth, but only ranks 91st in driving distance (247). Even Pinehurst No. 2, host of the U.S. Women’s Open, is known for its head scratching green complexes but had removed its rough and the native grass never played as penal as originally planned or thought.
But she’s not making excuses. She simply hasn’t gotten it done in the events that matter most to her.
“The majors this year has been really firm greens and just long distances and not much rough out there,” She said. “It’s been a little different from last year’s set ups, but I just didn’t play as well.”
She won’t classify this season a failure regardless of whether that major win comes on a Sunday here or in France in a month. However, to permanently eradicate the recollection of the two bogeys that loitered in her brain for weeks, it’s going to take a trophy on a Sunday – preferably the type that only come around five times a year.
“Hopefully, I can do it this week in a major,” she said. “That would be great.”