Inbee Park on brink of history at the home of golf

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland (AP) — The cheering jarred Inbee Park from her sleep.

The 10-year-old went downstairs to find her father in front of the television in the middle of the night in Seoul as he watched Se Ri Pak become the first South Korean to win the U.S. Women’s Open.

Within a week, Park wrapped her hands around a golf club for the first time, not knowing that it one day would lead her to the brink of history.

“They were doing replays every day on TV, her hitting the shot out of the water with her socks off,” Park said. “It was cool to see her white feet. I didn’t know what was happening, but I thought it was really cool to be seen playing golf and being on TV. Everybody was talking about it. Golf looked really fun.”

Fifteen years later, everyone is talking about Inbee Park.

A win this week in the Women’s British Open — at St. Andrews, of all places — would make the 25-year-old Park the first golfer to win four majors in one season.

Arnold Palmer created the modern Grand Slam, winning four professional majors in one year. Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Annika Sorenstam got halfway home before their pursuit of it ended. No one has ever had a better shot at it than Park, who has won three LPGA Tour majors this year.

She is a heavy favorite when the Open begins Thursday, just as Woods was at St. Andrews when he won to complete the career Grand Slam in 2000. Park already has won six times this year — half of those wins at majors — and has earned more than $2 million. No one else in women’s golf has crossed the $1 million mark.

“I think she can do it,” Pak said Wednesday, a Hall-of-Famer revered for cutting a path for so many South Koreans. “She’s dominating. Her game is strong. Her confidence is strong. All the attention is on her. Everyone thinks she can do it.”

Woods and Mickey Wright are the only players who have held four professional majors at the same time, both done over two seasons. Woods won the U.S. Open, British Open, PGA Championship and Masters in succession in 2000-01. Wright, who Ben Hogan once said had the best swing he ever saw, won the U.S. Women’s Open, LPGA Championship, Titleholders and Western Open over the 1961-62 seasons.

Wright has been watching Park on television this year and is struck by her calm.

“She certainly is an unflappable young lady,” the 78-year-old Wright told The Associated Press in a rare telephone interview from her home in Florida. “She’s probably the best putter I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen some good ones. I’m hoping she can pull it off, and then win the fifth one in France. No one will ever come close to that unless the LPGA adds a sixth major.”

The debate this week at St. Andrews is not whether Park is capable of a fourth straight major, but whether that will constitute a calendar Grand Slam.

The LPGA Tour, not nearly as established or well-funded as men’s golf, designated the Evian Championship in France as a fifth major this year. The Grand Slam — the one Palmer created in 1960 on his way to St. Andrews — has always been about four majors for more than a half-century.

“It’s pretty incredible to win the first three,” Woods said Wednesday at the Bridgestone Invitational in Ohio. “And the way she did it … executing, and it seemed like she just is making everything. … It’s really neat to see someone out there and doing something that no one has ever done, so that’s pretty cool.”

The Grand Slam in golf was first mentioned in 1930 when Bobby Jones won the four biggest events of his era — the British Open, U.S. Open, British Amateur and U.S. Amateur. The term came from contract bridge — winning all 13 tricks — or a clean sweep.

Slam or not, there is little debate that Park can do something no one else has in the modern game.

“If it could happen, it’s something that I will never forget,” Park said. “My name will be in the history of golf forever, even after I die.”

Her pursuit began with a four-shot victory in the Kraft Nabisco Championship. She won the LPGA Championship in a playoff over Catriona Matthew, and then took one giant step closer to history with a four-shot win at the U.S. Women’s Open.

“What she already has done is absolutely fantastic,” Wright said. “I know she’d be satisfied with that.”

The one constant to her remarkable run is that she makes it all look so easy.

“You would think after winning two of them it would faze her a little bit,” said Stacy Lewis, whom Park replaced at No. 1 in the world in April. “But obviously at the U.S. Open, it didn’t. I don’t know. Inbee is playing so good this year, and she’s so steady. You wouldn’t know whether she’s winning a tournament or whether she’s losing it, and that’s what you need in a major. As a player, you’d like to know if she’s human, to see if she actually feels the nerves like the rest of us do.”

Park doesn’t really have an intimidating presence, not like those who preceded her in women’s golf. She doesn’t overpower courses like Yani Tseng. She isn’t always accurate off the tee like Sorenstam. She’s not athletic like Karrie Webb. She lacks the charisma of Lorena Ochoa.

But she can putt. She can score. And she can win, especially the big ones. Especially this year.

“Sometimes you want to know what she’s feeling, what’s going through her head,” Paula Creamer said. “With Annika, with Lorena, with Yani, you knew what was going on. We have so much respect for players that dominate the game and raise the bar and change what we’re doing. With Inbee, it’s much harder to see. Obviously, she’s one of the greatest putters. She has so much confidence in it, and the way she plays the game, it’s so steady.

“She never makes mistakes, and if she does, she manages to walk away with par.”

Park moved to America when she was 12, first to Florida and eventually to Las Vegas. Her parents emphasized school — and learning to speak English — as much as golf. Her fiancé, Gi Hyeob Nam, is a former Korean PGA player who has been coaching her for the last two years.

“It’s funny, you always see her and her fiancé when they’re traveling,” Lewis said. “They’re always holding hands walking in the airport and they are very cute together. You can tell she’s very happy in her life, and obviously very happy with where her golf game is.

“More than anything, that’s what’s showing in her game.”

Her pursuit of a fourth major begins at 7:03 a.m. Thursday at St. Andrews, a course that already has been part of so much history and could very well get more.

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