For a few sloppy moments at the LPGA Championship, Inbee Park resembled the player she was a year ago when she was still trying to make a name for herself.
After three holes of a sudden-death playoff, Park looked more like the star she has become.
Shaking off losing a three-stroke lead over the final six holes Sunday, Park drained a 20-foot putt for birdie on the par-4 18th to outlast Catriona Matthew and claim the rain-delayed major.
In doing so, the 24-year-old South Korean player won her LPGA-leading fourth title of the season and second of two majors in continuing to cement her position as the world’s top-ranked player. That’s a big jump for a player who in 52 weeks has gone from 26th in the ranking to winning six of 26 events and earning more than $3.3 million – a little more than half her career winnings.
”A year ago, everything, I think, really started to click,” said Park, whose lone win before last year was the 2008 US Women’s Open.
”It was tough to win the second one,” she said, referring to winning the Evian Masters last year. ”But after that, I felt so comfortable and felt the confidence.”
It’s certainly starting to show.
Park persevered through what became a 39-hole marathon at Locust Hill outside of Rochester. The final two rounds were squeezed into Sunday after torrential rain postponed the first round Thursday.
Park missed eight of 14 fairways in stumbling down the stretch of the final round to finish at 3-over 75 and fall into a tie with Matthew at 5-under 283.
Park, however, regained her focus for the first playoff hole.
”Nothing seemed to be working. So I really cleared my head and just looked at the fairway. And I just smashed it,” Park said.
”I should have done that before,” she added, laughing, ”and I wouldn’t have had to play three more holes.”
She matched Matthew with pars on the first two playoff holes. Park then won after Matthew struggled getting out of the rough.
Park, who also won the Kraft Nabisco in California in early April, became only the seventh player to win the LPGA’s first two majors in a season, and the first since Annika Sorenstam won the same two events in 2005. In claiming the $337,500 first prize, Park increased her season winnings to $1.22 million and moved into 25th on the LPGA Tour’s career list at just under $6.5 million.
She also extended the streak to nine consecutive majors won by Asian players.
While Park backed into the playoff, Matthew reached it in an altogether different fashion. Seven shots back when the final round began, the 42-year-old from Scotland finished with a bogey-free 68 before nervously waiting to see whether that was enough to give her a shot.
”When I started the last round, I probably didn’t realize I could win,” Matthew said. ”So to play well, and get into the playoffs was obviously pretty good. Obviously, when you get into it, it’s pretty disappointing. But overall, a pretty good week.”
Suzann Pettersen and Morgan Pressel tied for third, a shot behind the leaders. Pettersen had the low round for the tournament, closing with a 65. Pressel collapsed after she opened the day with a two-stroke lead through two rounds at 6-under 138.
”I’m definitely disappointed, but it’s the first time in a long time I’ve contended,” said Pressel, winless since 2008. ”I’m happy with the way that I played this week as a whole. I had chances. Nothing went in. And that happens.”
Pressel earned 57 points in the Solheim Cup standings to jump from 15th into 10th.
The top eight US players in the Solheim standings at the end of the Women’s British Open automatically qualify for the team. Two more will qualify based on their position in the world ranking. Team captain Meg Mallon will select the final two members.
Park trailed Pressel by five shots midway through the third round before she birdied four of the final six holes for a 68 to take a one-shot lead. Park never trailed again.
It was the eighth playoff in the LPGA Championship’s 59-year history, and first since 2008, when Yani Tseng needed four holes to defeat Maria Hjorth.
”I felt like I ran a marathon today,” Park said. ”I’m just happy we got it done. A major championship should have this kind of challenge, not the 36 holes every time, but this golf course.”