When Inbee Park stepped to Sebonack’s 10th tee early Thursday, she was greeted by a shockingly shortened U.S. Women’s Open setup. The 10th, her first hole of the day, played 21 yards shorter than expected in Round 1, prompting Park later to use the word “generous” in describing the setup. It’s an adjective that doesn’t often come into play at the national championship.
At the 10th, Park’s first hole of the day, she and caddie Brad Beecher adjusted to the new yardage. Park wedged to a foot, made birdie and the two moved on. By now Park is famous for her lack of emotion, but Beecher maintains a beginning birdie has more effect on Park than she may let on.
“If she ever birdies the first hole,” Beecher said after the round, “she feels it’s going to be a good day ahead.”
Perhaps more surprising than Park’s opening 67 on a steamy Long Island day was the gift the U.S. Golf Association gave the entire field. The course played about 300 yards shorter than the advertised 6,821 yards.
Park, the 24-year-old South Korean who won the season’s first two major championships and is No. 1 in the Rolex Rankings, posted the low score in the morning wave, followed by a 4-under 68 from Caroline Hedwall.
The number stood up for Park until late in the evening, when Ha-Neul Kim took the lead with a birdie on her 17th hole of the round and shot 66.
“(The USGA) can do so much on this golf course,” Park said. “You could play a totally different golf course tomorrow, and they can do so much with the tee boxes and pin placements. You just can’t expect anything from them. ”
Park adjusted well to the shakeup in her yardage book, even though some of the USGA’s edits changed attack angles into greens. Yardage changes never resulted in a major mistake for Park, who missed only two fairways all day. One of those missed fairways led to her only bogey, at the par-4 sixth.
“We just had to think a little bit more off the tee,” Beecher said.
Park’s biggest move came after the turn, when she went 3 under at Nos. 1-4. Park celebrated birdies on Thursday in exactly the same way, no matter the length. One arm comes up to the side, in a very skinny “V.” From the ropes, it’s difficult to tell any difference in expression, and Beecher explains that that’s just Park. She’s not an emotional person.
Asked to explain what goes through her head in such a moment, Park said what you see is what you get.
“You’re excited inside, but you can’t be too excited because you’ve got to play the next shot,” Park said. “So I’m just trying to stay as calm as possible when I’m on the golf course.”
What fans see, and murmur about, in Park’s gallery is phenomenal putting. It’s the characteristic they use to explain why this low-key player is worth watching. Park had only 25 putts in Thursday’s round, and paused for a few seconds, tilting her head first to one side and then the other, as she tried to pinpoint the last time she stood over a putt and felt she might not make it. Aside from gaggers, Park has felt comfortable over her putter since the end of May.
Like many other areas of her career lately, Park may be in uncharted waters after Thursday’s round. If her 67 holds from the morning, it will be the first time in eight U.S. Women’s Open starts that she’s taken the first-round lead. It’s her lowest round in a Women’s Open, one better than a final-round 68 in 2010. An opening 69 in 2007 and an opening 70 in 2010 left her in second each time.
“I think I’m in the best position I could be in,” Park said Thursday. “I didn’t leave many out there.”