The power, grace and balance of Sung Hyun Park’s golf swing is simply breathtaking. The stoic, focused way she stalks the golf course is bone-chilling in its single-minded determination. And Park’s accomplishments in fewer than three full seasons on the LPGA beg the question: “How high is up?”
Park burst on the LPGA scene at the 2016 U.S. Women’s Open where she qualified by being in the top-five on the Korea LPGA money list. She was 22 years old, a virtual unknown to tour fans – although a proven winner in Korea where she’d already won 10 times – and then she almost won the tournament.
Sung Hyun was the talk of the day on Friday at CordeValle Golf Club after a second-round 66 gave her a two-stroke lead. She trailed Lydia Ko by one stroke going to Sunday’s final round and needed a birdie on the final hole – a 523-yard par-5 vulnerable to her power – to finish 72 holes tied with Brittany Lang, the eventual winner in a playoff, and Anna Nordqvist.
While Park found the water and made a bogey to finish T-3, two strokes back, her performance that week – and, oh my, that golf swing – served notice that this young bundle of talent from South Korea was a force to be reckoned with.
When Park joined the LPGA in 2017 she entered the season as the odds-on favorite to be Rolex Rookie of the Year, adding T-2 at the Evian Championship and T-6 at the ANA Inspiration to her T-2 at the Women’s Open in 2016. And she didn’t disappoint, wrapping up the honor with more than a month left in the season.
She also shared Rolex Player of the Year with So Yeon Ryu, making Park the first to sweep those honors in the same year since Nancy Lopez in 1978. Proving that she understands the principle of payback, Park made her first LPGA win the 2017 U.S. Women’s Open, securing the trophy she let slip through her hands a year earlier.
Sung Hyun has won multiple times in each of her three LPGA seasons, including another major at the 2018 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship as well as last year’s Volunteers of America Texas Classic, where she defends her title this week.
And Park rides into the Lone Star state lugging an impressive 2019 resume.
In addition to victories at the HSBC Women’s World Championship and the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship, Park is in the top-five in Race to the CME Globe points, money list, scoring average, driving distance, greens in regulation, putts per GIR, Rolex Player of the Year and she’s No. 2 in the Rolex Rankings behind Jin Young Ko.
While Park didn’t win a major this year after snaring one each of the two previous seasons, she was second at the KPMG Women’s PGA, T-6 at the Evian Championship and eighth at the AIG Women’s British Open. The only thing missing in Park’s game is the relentless consistency exhibited by Ko, who is No. 1 in Race to the CME, money list and scoring as well as the Rolex Rankings.
Ko has finished in the top-10 in 10 of her 18 starts while Park has seven top-10s in 16 starts. And Ko is far less likely to throw in an occasional clunker – as Park did when she was T-52 at the ANA Inspiration in April.
But watching Park there is the feeling she is evolving not just as a player but as a person. She is not someone naturally comfortable being in the spotlight or speaking publicly, although her comfort zone is expanding, especially as she gets more fluent in English.
Adding to Park’s adjustment to fame is the fact she’s a rock star in Korea. Her fan club has 11,000 members and when she plays at home they turn out by the thousands to cheer her on while showing up by the dozens at events in the United States. The Koreans compare it in size and intensity to the heyday of Arnie’s Army cheering on Arnold Palmer.
As Park steps into the tee box to hit her first shot, one of her fans will shout: “Namdala” and others answer: “Fighting.” The fan club took its name from a word on Park's golf bag that means: “I am different,” which is an accurate assessment of Park from both her talent to her tone.
“They are always supporting me, even when the weather is very hot," Park says. “They come to see me and cheer for me, and they give me snacks. Just them being there for me makes me focus on my game more. They make me happy. They help my game.”
For encouragement, Park need only look at Annika Sorenstam, who went from being painfully shy to winning 72 times on the LPGA with 10 majors and also becoming an accomplished public speaker. Park’s weaknesses aren’t so much technical but in her ability to embrace the situation she is in.
When you look at someone who is only 26 and already has seven LPGA wins, including two majors in only 63 career starts and say there is still room for improvement, that indicates the ceiling for achievement is very high indeed.
There is a lot that goes into being a transcendent champion. There is natural talent and hard work, of course, and there is learning how to win. But there is also learning how to handle being a star. Sorenstam had to grow into that role, as did Lorena Ochoa. Bob Jones and Mickey Wright, two of the greatest ever, did so reluctantly and left the stage early.
“Arguably the best homemade swing in women's golf, old school style,” says Golf Channel commentator Jerry Foltz, the former touring pro who has walked many holes with Park, noting that she has built a swing without a coach. Then Foltz adds: “She plays without fear, but not always without doubt.”
Park displayed her potential for growth when she won the U.S. Women’s Open a year after watching her chances disappear into a pond.
“When I was approaching to make the fourth shot, 18th hole, my mind went completely blank,” she said about closing out the 2017 U.S. Open. “But I remember to stick with how I usually play because it was part of my practice and I stuck with it and I did it. Last year I think toward the end I was getting more anxious and I just wanted to probably reduce the number of stroke, that I was probably pressuring myself.”
Sung Hyun Park seems to be finding the same balance in her life that she has in her golf swing and in that balance she may very well find the antidote for the doubt Foltz references.
“I also want to thank all of you out there,” Park said to the TV audience when she won the Women’s Open. “I also like to thank my fans here in the United States. So, I want to say something short, try in English so bear with me, please.”
Then she added with the same determination she shows on the golf course:
“Thank you, and to my fans, thank you."
There is no reason to think there won’t be many more “thank you” speeches in Park’s future has she hoists more trophies. And there is no reason to think those speeches won’t achieve the same level of grace as her game.
For Sung Hyun Park, it feels like the best is yet to come – and that’s saying a lot.