Wearing a black rain suit and a soft smile, Inbee Park looked calm as ever standing before the imposing Royal & Ancient clubhouse just moments before she teed off Thursday in the Women’s British Open.
Only after her unsteady round of 3-under 69 did Park reveal perhaps the biggest surprise at St. Andrews.
She was nervous.
"But then once the round started, and especially playing so good in the first few holes, that really gave me a lot of confidence," Park said. "I didn’t feel much pressure when I was playing during the round. I’m just glad that it’s already started and I got the first round under my belt."
Park wound up three shots behind Morgan Pressel and Camilla Lennarth of Sweden, a solid start to what should be a fascinating week at the home of golf.
Her pursuit of history looked more like a high-speed chase when the 25-year-old South Korean made six birdies in 10 holes. Three poor tee shots, two three-putt bogeys and one double bogey from a pot bunker on the back nine made her realize there’s a reason no golfer has ever won four majors in a single year.
"Felt like a roller coaster today," Park said.
She was only too happy it finally stopped with a 6-foot birdie on the 18th hole, ending a slide during which she dropped four shots in a five-hole span.
Pressel, one spot out of making the Solheim Cup team this week, caught a break when the rain and wind never materialized in the afternoon. She made seven birdies in a round of 66 that gave her a share of the lead with Lennarth, who birdied the 18th.
Stacy Lewis, the former No. 1 player in women’s golf, shot 31 on the tougher back nine for a 67 to be part of a large group that included former U.S. Women’s Open champion Na Yeon Choi and Nicole Castrale. Another shot behind were Paula Creamer, Catriona Matthew and Lizette Salas.
Those who played early had reason to worry.
Lewis was on the 10th tee when she looked over at Park knocking in an 18-foot birdie putt, her fifth of the round. Castrale had not yet teed off when her husband saw a leaderboard with Park’s name in a familiar position.
"It’s amazing, the fact we all possibly can play with history," Castrale said. "It’s amazing what she’s done to this point, the composure she has. I don’t know what she shot today, but I’m going to guess she’ll be in the mix come Sunday."
If there were nerves on the first tee for Park, she didn’t show it.
She opened with a wedge into about 7 feet for birdie, and then she really poured it on with an astounding display of her putting stroke. She rolled in a 30-foot birdie putt on No. 3 with perfect pace. She made an 18-foot birdie on No. 4 and a 35-footer on No. 6. It didn’t look as if she would ever miss. Her sixth birdie came at the 10th, when her sand wedge checked up to 5 feet right of the hole. Another birdie.
Just like that, there was a feeling of inevitability about this Women’s British Open, much as there was for Tiger Woods when he won the British Open for the first time at St. Andrews by eight shots to complete the career Grand Slam in 2000.
But not for long.
It started with a tee shot into thick grass to the right of the 12th fairway. She saved par with another great putt, this one from 15 feet, but she couldn’t save herself much longer. After another poor tee shot on the 13th, she came dangerously close to a large gorse bush. She chipped to 15 feet and made bogey, her first of the day. A delicate pitch-and-run helped her avoid another bogey on the 15th after a third tee shot to the right.
Park appeared to be in big trouble when her approach rolled toward the high face of the vetted wall in a pot bunker short of the 16th hole. She considered a shot over the wall toward the flag, but then wisely turned sideways and blasted out to some 90 feet away, her ball about halfway between the flags of No. 2 and No. 16 on the double green. Her first putt wasn’t hit nearly hard enough, and her par putt from 15 feet caught the lip.
"A little disappointing, but I’m glad that I’ve done that in the first round instead of the final round," she said.
It was only her second double bogey in a major this year.
She also three-putted the 17th from 40 feet when her first attempt came up 10 feet short, leading to another three-putt bogey.
"I thought that I fixed my problems coming into this week. I was hitting it so good on the practice round and I didn’t really miss any balls," Park said. "I thought I was really prepared, but those couple of bad shots really shocked me. I couldn’t really concentrate on the greens when I hit those shots. I’ve learned my lesson. Good thing I’ve got my time to fix that today and tomorrow."
Only four months ago, Park and Lewis were battling for No. 1 in the world until the South Korean left everyone in her wake by adding to her collection of majors. The Kraft Nabisco Championship put her in position to take No. 1 away from Lewis, and the playoff win at the LPGA Championship and four-shot win at the U.S. Women’s Open brought her to the brink of something grand.
Lewis and Karrie Webb were on the 11th tee when they saw Park make another birdie.
"We both looked at each other and shook our heads," Lewis said. "We knew she was going to be there, but it’s like she keeps doing it over and over and over again."
Lewis made up ground on the back nine. And when rough weather didn’t arrive, plenty of others took aim on the Old Course. Park was tied for 18th on a day in which 73 players broke par. Her biggest test might come if the strong wind arrives before Sunday. She’s not ready to think that far ahead.
"If I could walk out of this tournament with no regrets, that’s what I’m looking to do," she said. "That’s all I could ask for."