Inbee Park was not in the field last week at The ShopRite LPGA Classic Presented by Acer, she was at home in Las Vegas resting her injured thumb.
But that doesn’t mean Park isn’t focused on the goal – actually, the dream – she’s had since beginning her professional career a decade ago.
Injuries aside, when Park makes it through at least one round of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship – where the 27-year-old is a three-time defending champion – she will have checked all the boxes in terms of qualifying for the LPGA Hall of Fame, becoming just the second South Korean woman (after Se Ri Pak) to achieve such a feat.
For the first time in her career, Park has not been able to play up to the level that saw her skyrocket to the top of the Rolex Rankings, and capture 17 LPGA Tour titles, including five in 2015.
So for a young woman who seemingly has accomplished everything there is accomplish in women’s professional golf, what keeps her motivated?
“It’s a tough thing for me this year, because it’s hard to find motivation when you’re injured. The Hall of Fame was something that I always dreamed of since I started playing golf, but I just thought that it was the end of my career, the last goal of my career,” Park says by telephone from Las Vegas. “The Hall of Fame was what motivated me and inspired me to keep going, it’s led me to what I’ve accomplished so far.”
“After achieving that, it’s like, ‘what’s next?’ she continues. “I need to sit down and think about the next goal. I have a lot of other goals to shoot for. It doesn’t matter what people say, what’s important is something in my mind.”
Despite her injury, Park has still notched two top-10 finishes this year, including a second at the KIA Classic.
But she says playing through the pain the last few weeks has been for the greater good of her season. She is extremely focused on the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, an event that is near-and-dear to her heart.
“I really wanted to be prepared for the KPMG and defending my title three times in a row. I wanted to check if I was ready for the tournament,” she explains. “I just wouldn’t be able to tell unless I played other tournaments. I wanted to play and see how I felt, and I wanted to be ready.”
Although Park has defended her title on three different courses the last three years, she says there is no real secret to her success.
“I just like major tournaments in general,” she says with a small laugh. “At first-time golf courses everybody is in the same situation, everyone is playing competition golf at that course for the first time. I try to take that as an advantage. I have a major championship strategy and I just try to stick with it and enjoy the challenge.”
Park is not naïve to admit there are other challenges on the LPGA Tour right now, mainly in the form of teenage sensations like number one-ranked Lydia Ko (19) and number four-ranked Brooke Henderson (18), not to mention a cast of others like Ariya Jutanugarn (who just turned 20 in November and has won the last three LPGA events), who are taking women’s professional golf into a new era.
And it’s not like Park is that much older, in the grand scheme of things.
“A lot of young players are playing really well these days, but the older girls are playing well too,” Park says. “That’s the fun thing about being on the LPGA Tour, you feel that you’re younger. I’m still young, but being around teenagers, competing with teenagers, and thinking younger brings you a lot of motivation.”
“It’s amazing to see those young girls playing really well at such a young age,” continues Park. “It’s just fun. Golf is not just about teenagers or girls in their 20s. There are players in their 30s, 40s, and even 50s. That’s the fun part about golf: everyone can compete.”
Despite her injury, that’s all Park wants to do. She wants to compete.
“I’m just not used to taking so much time off in the season. I’ve never really had a major injury. I’ve never been this long away from the game the last 10 years,” she explains. “I’m just not used to it, I can’t sit back and stay still. And it’s such an important season as well.”
With Park on the cusp of the Hall of Fame, she is honored to speak of her golf hero, Se Ri Pak.
“She’s the first of everything in Korean women’s golf,” Park says. “She started the road for us. We never thought playing on the (LPGA) Tour would be possible for us. But she kind of proved we can do it.”
And now Park is hoping to prove to herself that she can push through her injury and defend her title next week. The Hall of Fame is in her sights, but playing good golf is a priority, too.
“The Hall of Fame is a motivating factor to continue to play, but I know I’ll get there eventually,” she says. “It’s hard because I know the pain is there, and I tell myself that the pain is going to go away. Sometimes it feels better, sometimes it’s worse. It could be a good week, it could be a bad week.”
As long as Park makes it through one round of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, though, next week would most definitely be a good week.