Park holds off Creamer for Titleholders title

Hee Young Park kisses the trophy after winning the season ending CME Group Titleholders at Grand Cypress in Orlando, Fla.
Hee Young Park kisses the trophy after winning the season ending CME Group Titleholders at Grand Cypress in Orlando, Fla. ( Tracy Wilcox )

Sunday, November 20, 2011

ORLANDO, Fla. – Early in the week at the LPGA season finale, three players were honored for earning their first wins on tour. Hee Young Park is just a few days late to that party.

Park punctuated her fourth season on the LPGA by keeping at bay an impressive band of pursuers Sunday at the Titleholders to win a $500,000 paycheck. The South Korean was the only player in the top-10 spots on the final leaderboard that hadn’t won an LPGA event before Sunday. But that’s not to say Park doesn’t fit in among this crowd.

Cristie Kerr found Park on the driving range before the round and made it a point to wish her luck, and a trio of players flooded the 18th green to shower her with champagne. Park, 24, calls Yani Tseng an old friend, too, after getting to know the World No. 1 during their days playing playing on their respective national teams as amateurs – Tseng for Taiwan, Park for Korea.

“We practiced a lot, and I even visited her house when I visited Taiwan,” Park said after shooting 3-under 69 to steal the show from Tseng when the two were paired together in Round 2. “We share a long friendship, so it was fun.”

During delays that day, the petite Park sat with her legs folded beneath her, chatting with Tseng and gesticulating with hands tipped with bright turquoise fingernails. In post-round interviews, Park had crowds in stitches as she talked of an unopened bottle of tequila purchased the week prior in Guadalajara that now had a reason to be uncapped. And of the 18th-green shower, Park just said: “It feels really good. I could do one more.”

Courtesy of this win, Park will return to South Korea with a purse of half a million. But the intangibles are significant, too. Her 9-under 279 total on the tricky Grand Cypress North-South layout is impressive even without figuring in the recurring wind gusts that plagued the week. Top-10 players trudged into the media room after Round 2 and declared they would have taken a score of even or 1 under if offered at the beginning of the round. Park shot 69. She followed it with another 69 Saturday as only top-ranked Tseng (66) and Solheim Cup hero Suzann Pettersen (68) were able to beat her. Park closed with 70 on Sunday as the best in the world tried, unsuccessfully, to make up ground. It gives Park bragging rights among her successful South Korean compatriots – not that she’ll use them.

“We care about win, but not care about, ‘Oh you won twice, you won four times,’” Park said.

Paula Creamer tied Sandra Gal for runner-up honors two shots behind Park. Creamer fought putting woes during the final round, but rebounded for a 70 after three-putting from four feet at the second hole.

Gal, paired with Park in the final round, couldn’t recover from a slow start and gain any considerable ground on a charging player like Park, who didn’t make many mistakes.

“She had great composure all day long,” said Gal, who earned her first career win at the Kia Classic. “She’s always smiling. I’ve played with her many times, and she’s such a great competitor.”

One of the keys to getting there was simply not thinking about it. Park’s caddie Kylie Pratt kept her player’s eyes off the leaderboard coming down the final stretch as Park built her lead to two over eventual runners-up Sandra Gal and Paula Creamer. With Pratt standing nearby after the round, Park eventually admitted that she had sneaked a peak, just once, at the 16th. Then she flashed the ear-to-ear grin that makes it easy to understand why opponents would want to wish her well.

The first LPGA win is a career-definer, something that’s written all over Park’s face when she talks about it. She refers to her newest victory as a “dream come true,” and it certainly was a long time coming. Park took up the game as an 11-year-old, played four years on the KLPGA beginning in 2004 (winning four times) and qualified for the LPGA on her first try.

This win was different from one in Korea, Park explained. This win brought father Hyung Sub to tears back home, where he waits to help younger sister Ju Young Park through KLPGA Q-School. On the bright side, Park noted after some thought and with a giggle, it will satisfy those applying the most pressure: her sponsors.

But all joking aside, it satisfies something deeper, too.

“This is my first win in U.S., but it feels totally different (from a win in Korea),” she said. “Still same kind of goosebumps, same thing, but this win I think changing my life, my future.” readers: We value your input and welcome your comments, but please be respectful in this forum.