There’s under the radar and then there’s Inbee Park.
The 25-year-old South Korean is trying to become the first golfer — male or female — to win four professional majors in one calendar year, and she’s attempting to make history at the home of golf, St Andrews, in this week’s Ricoh Women’s British Open.
It’s as compelling a storyline as golf has had since Tiger Woods was in his pomp.
Or at least it should be.
The reality is there’s more buzz about Hunter Mahan bailing on the lead at the Canadian Open last weekend to be with his wife for the birth of their first child.
At Tuesday’s press conference for Park, a reporter tweeted a photograph of too many empty chairs. Tiger hasn’t won a major since 2008 yet it was standing room only for his pre-Muirfield dance with the media.
“I think for what Inbee is doing right now, she’s not getting the credit that she deserves,” says Stacey Lewis, the woman Park supplanted as world No. 1 this year. “If somebody was doing this on the men’s tour, it would be being talked over and over and over again.”
Lewis has that right, of course.
Part of the reason for Park’s relative anonymity lies in the fact that women’s golf, like Rodney Dangerfield, gets no respect.
Illustrating the gulf between the genders in golf, as part of a new sponsorship deal, Park got a new red Ferrari. Flamboyant Englishman Ian Poulter has won as many majors as you and I combined, yet he owns a fleet of expensive sports cars, including Ferraris. Park, meanwhile, gets to keep hers for only 12 months.
Then there’s the fact that the women’s game has a special talent for shooting itself in the foot: Because the women now have five majors — adding The Evian this year — there’s been internal debate about whether Park can even claim a Grand Slam with a win at St Andrews.
The other stumbling block lies with Park herself.
She’s the anti-Babe Zaharias, the self-promoting sporting champion who in 1950 won golf’s (then) three majors. Park is shy, humble and a tad portly, friendly by everyone’s description but not a player who stands out in the crowd. (You know there’s a problem when I have almost three times as many followers as she does on Twitter.)
Her victories aren’t built on daredevil brilliance but on a metronomic consistency. She usually hits the fairway, then the green and then — invariably — holes the putt. If Park — whose unique golf swing is effective more than a thing of beauty — has a gift it’s with a putter in her hand.
She’s essentially been the best putter in the women’s game since joining the LPGA in 2007. But this year, when it’s mattered most, she’s been even more dangerous in winning six times. Each of her three major victories — the Kraft Nabisco, Wegmans LPGA and US Women’s Open — was built on the greens, where she’s averaged a hair over 28 putts a round.
Mickey Wright — who held all four women’s majors at the same time in the early 1960s, though like Woods didn’t win them all in the same year — marvels at Park’s “gorgeous” putting stroke. Her left hand is low and her weight is more on her front foot, and Wright says Park’s reading of greens rivals Woods’ in the early 2000s.
Park’s other great strength is that she refuses to allow her emotions to get the better of her on the course.
“You would think after winning two of them it would faze her a little bit, but obviously at the US Open, it didn’t,” Lewis says. “She is so steady, you would not know whether she’s winning a tournament or whether she’s losing it, and that’s what you need in a major.
“I expect her to be there on Sunday to be up on the leaderboard having a chance. But, you know, as a player, you would like to know if she’s human a little bit, to see if she actually feels the nerves like the rest of us do.”
It’s clear Park is liked and respected by her peers, but they all seem to stumble when asked to recount stories about her.
“She’s very quiet on the golf course,” Lewis says. “You don’t get a lot out of her.
“It’s funny, you always see her and her fiancé when they are traveling. They are always holding hands walking in the airport, and they are very cute together. You can tell she’s very happy in her life, very happy in her personal life and obviously very happy with where her golf game is. When things are going well off the course, it makes playing a lot easier, so you can just tell she’s happy, and I think more than anything, that’s what’s showing in her game.”
Park’s father got her started in the game after watching Si Re Pak win two majors in 1998 — victories that changed everything for Korean women’s golf, which is more popular than the men’s game.
But unlike many of her peers, this has been Park’s dream at least as much as her father’s. She burst onto the scene as a 19-year-old by winning the US Women’s Open in 2008 but admits she wasn’t ready for stardom, either as a person or as a player.
“My swing improved over the years, and playing improved over the years, and my thinking process . . . everything, yeah,” she said this week.
She’s always been even-keeled on the golf course and doesn’t apologize for lacking emotion.
“I think that’s been my personality forever since I was a little kid. My emotions don’t express so much on my face,” she says. “That’s just how I play golf, and it’s been working really good on the golf course.”
As for her chances at St Andrews, she says her natural low ball flight will help in the wind, and it won’t hurt her that the Old Course’s massive greens will allow her to use the best club in her bag even more than usual.
Despite the pressure, she certainly doesn’t seem too stressed.
“If you can hit it straight every shot and hole some putts, it doesn’t matter what golf course you play,” she says.