The chemistry of greatness is a complicated formula sabotaged by the slightest miscalculation. For golfers, a key is the ability to repeat, whether it’s the swing, backing up a great round, piling up victories or stringing together dominating years. Inbee Park has checked all those boxes, never more dramatically than her burst of brilliance from 2012-15.
In that four-year run, Inbee won 16 times on the LPGA Tour, including six major championships. Still only 31, she’s already in the LPGA Hall of Fame and has 20 wins, placing her tied for 26th on the all-time list.
Her seven majors are tied with Juli Inkster and Karrie Webb for seventh place all time. Of the six players in front of them, only Annika Sorenstam with 10 won her first major after 1958.
Among players from South Korea, Park trails only Se Ri Pak, who has 25 LPGA wins, but outdistances Pak in majors, seven to five. The next Korean on the LPGA victory list is Jiyai Shin with 11, a distant third in Park’s rearview mirror.
Great winners – think Sorenstam and Tiger Woods – forget their wins as quickly as they forget their losses. While it’s important to let go of bad outcomes, the really great players also know how to relegate the good results to their proper place in the past. They never rest on their laurels.
When Sorenstam or Woods won, they played the next event as if they had never taken a title. They played every tournament, every round, every shot as if it were the most important in their lives. No matter how many trophies they accumulated, they never satisfied the hunger.
Park has that same quality. But getting to that good place was not an easy voyage. It started when she was 10 years old, watching on TV back in South Korea when Pak won the 1998 U.S Women’s Open.
“After Se Ri won, it was on TV every day and they made advertisements about her hitting out of the water,” Park says. “I watched it a lot of times and I said to myself, ‘I can do that.’”
Inbee came to the United States at 12 to take instruction and play tournaments, winning the U.S. Girl’s Junior in 2002 and finishing second in 2003 and 2005. When Park joined the LPGA in 2007 she was already fluent in English and had developed friendships with fellow AJGA players Brittany Lincicome, Paula Creamer and Morgan Pressel.
Then, 10 years after watching on TV as Pak won the U.S. Women’s Open, Park became the youngest winner of that championship, taking the 2008 title at 19. That success, however, was followed by a long drought. It was four years until she won again on the LPGA at the 2012 Evian Championship.
But that opened the floodgates. A turning point came when Gi Hyeob Nam, a former Korean PGA Tour player, who was Park’s swing coach and is now her husband, went on the road with her.
“I really started playing well [when] I started traveling with him,” she says. “He has been a big help on my swing and mentally and everything.”
That’s an assessment with which others agree.
“I think the turnaround for her [was] mental,” says Pak about the new Queen of Korean golf. “She is in a happy place.”
Bradley Beecher, an Australian who has been Park’s caddie since September 2007, has seen it all.
“She lost a lot of confidence after she won the Open,” says Beecher. “There was a lot of pressure on her and her schedule in 2009 didn’t help. She used to play eight in a row and get in a rhythm then it became three on and two off.”
The key, he says, was a brief step back from the LPGA Tour to regroup.
“After the 2009 season, she went to Q school in Japan and that was a great move,” Beecher says. “She won twice there in 2010 and started to get her confidence.”
Another key element is the ability to be at your best when it means the most. Park was certainly that. Thirty-five percent of her LPGA Tour wins are majors. Add to that the gold medal in the 2016 Olympics and that Girls Junior and its clear she dances her best on the biggest stages and under the brightest lights.
“I just love playing in major championships,” she says in the low-key, matter-of-fact way she approaches life. If you were to watch only her body language on the golf course you’d have no idea if she were shooting 68 or 78.
During her dominating years, especially in 2013 when she won three consecutive majors, Park hit two kinds of putts: They either went in the hole or they almost went in. She led the Tour in Putts Per Geens (hit) In Regulation in 2012-14 and was third in 2015.
“Putting is always the key for her,” says Beecher.
Se Ri Pak is the once and future Godmother of Korean golf. She got the ball rolling. But in Park, she found an extremely capable woman to whom to hand her nation’s baton, both as a player and as a person.
“I’m just really proud of my country and really proud of all my friends who are playing out here,” says Park. “It’s just living my dream every day.”
With a victory already in the interrupted 2020 season at the ISPS Handa Women's Australian Open, it’s clear Park’s yet to awaken from that dream.
This low-key woman who hides her emotions well may still have a couple of goals driving her on: Perhaps another Olympic gold medal; perhaps catching Pak in victories.
It’s all part of that formula for greatness and you get the feeling that, quietly, Park is still calculating.