BIRMINGHAM, Ala - Inbee Park and the USGA have a long and successful relationship and, if for no other reason, that should make her a top contender this week at soggy Shoal Creek near storm-battered Birmingham. But there are a ton of other reasons she is one of the favorites. Park’s had a solid LPGA season and comes into Alabama off a win on the Korean LPGA. She quietly looms as a serious threat to take home her third U.S. Women’s Open trophy and fourth USGA crown overall.
The South Korean, now 29, won the 2002 U.S. Girls Junior Championship, was runner-up on two other occasions and in 2008, at 19, became the youngest winner of the U.S. Women’s Open, breaking the mark set in 1998 by 20-year-old Se Ri Pak, the godmother of Korean golf. Park added another U.S. Women’s Open in 2013, her third consecutive major title of what was an historic year for her.
But that’s not all. Park has five other top-10 finishes in the Women’s Open. It would be easy – and not inaccurate – to say she has a perfect U.S. Open game, but that would be selling Park short. She has a game that travels well to any venue, a fact proven by her total of seven major championships, including at least one in four of the five majors. But the precision and putting demanded by the U.S. Open does play into her strengths. And then there is the motivation factor.
“The U.S. Women's Open is always the tournament that I wanted to win and always wanted to play well and always look forward to playing in the whole year's schedule,” Park said Tuesday, a day in which practice rounds were cancelled by the weather. “Obviously, being champion of the U.S. Women's Open is the greatest honor.”
Park comes into Shoal Creek very much on form. She not only won the Bank of Hope Founders Cup in March but also was T-2 on two other occasions and third another time. Remarkably, despite playing only seven of the 13 LPGA events in 2018, Park leads the tour in rounds under par with 23.
The numbers detail a game with simply no weaknesses. Park is 18th in driving accuracy, fifth in greens hit in regulations, fourth in putts per GIR and third in scoring. What she does perhaps better than anyone is not beat herself, keeping her mistakes at a minimum. Oh, and she is on the short list when it comes to the best putters ever on any tour.
“This is probably the wettest conditions I have ever seen in a U.S. Women's Open,” Park said. “We just don't know what's going to happen. Coming in to the U.S. Women's Open, I always try to play the ball with the mud or try to play with like a wet ground condition because we've never played lift, clean and place. We just play from wherever it is and however the condition is. I really didn't expect to play the lift, clean and place this week.”
The one place Park gives away an advantage is distance off the tee, and the rain will make Shoal Creek play even longer, but that does not bother her. “I'm obviously not the longest hitter on the tour, so this course is going to play a little bit tougher on me. [But] accuracy is going to be the key on the second shot. Long hitters have that advantage, but it does come down to really the short games and who holes many putts.”
And that is where Park excels. The U.S. Open, more than any other tournament, is an event where pars are precious, birdies are rare and bogeys are a way of life. Winning an Open is all about minimizing your bad shots and making a lot of those momentum-saving 5-foot par putts. That pretty much sums of Inbee’s game. This week we’ll find out if she is a mudder.