Park chases a first at grand cathedral of golf

Inbee Park holds up three fingers to represent her three major titles so far this season.

Inbee Park holds up three fingers to represent her three major titles so far this season.

— When Inbee Park drove through a toll booth last week in South Korea, the woman handing out tickets asked, “Oh, are you Inbee Park?” It startled Park, who just last month said she probably wouldn’t be recognized walking down the streets of downtown Seoul wearing anything other than golf clothes.

That was before Park won three consecutive major championships to start the 2013 season. Before she started chasing down the game’s biggest carrot – the elusive Grand Slam. Before she came to golf’s greatest cathedral with the chance to do something that’s never been done.

Why then were there so many empty chairs in Park’s 3 p.m. presser here at the Old Course? It’s Tuesday of the Ricoh Women’s British Open, and the most dominant golfer on the planet sat in front of a half-empty interview room answering questions about how she’ll handle the growing pressure of the Grand Slam.

See top groupings and complete tee times for the first round.

There were more members of the Korean media on hand to be sure, but the turnout of British journalists and golf writers in general was less than impressive.

“I think for what Inbee is doing right now, she’s not getting the credit that she deserves for it,” said Stacy Lewis.

“I don’t think as a tour we’ve gotten the credibility that we have deserved.”

With the men’s Open Championship held at Muirfield two weeks ago, questions were again raised about equality in the women’s game. Given the standing of women’s golf in South Korea, perhaps it’s fitting that a South Korean woman be the one on the cusp of the unfathomable. At least there the feat will be celebrated appropriately.

“The women’s game is bigger than the men’s in Korea,” said Park. “We just outnumber them.”

Korean golf fans are more familiar with female players, and, as Park noted, can relate more to their games.

Park was given a red Ferrari FX – on loan for a year – for her recent efforts. The World No. 1 is anything but flashy. The car, in a way, represents what American fans need to see to buy into Park’s storyline: bold, sleek, head-turning brilliance. Park is the anti-Ferrari, the white Toyota Corolla that’s as reliable as rain.

The only thing fast about Park has been her rise to utter dominance.

British bookies have Park at 5 to 1 to win the Women’s British.

There are those who say her length will hold her back this week. Bombers usually win here. Lewis sees it differently. After watching Park win back-to-back majors on a wet Locust Hill followed by a hard, fast Sebonack, she puts no stock in what kind of track favors Park.

“When you make putts,” Lewis said, “your game suits any course.”

The last (and first) time the women played at the Old Course, the game’s best at the time – Lorena Ochoa – won in dominating fashion. It was a fitting end to an historic week in 2007.

It’s not like Park hasn’t fared well at the British. She finished T-9, T-7 and 2nd in her last three starts and tied for 11th at the Old Course in 2007. She’s never held the lead at day’s end at this event, but it’s a year for firsts.

“I was very nervous the first time when I was in the last group,” Park said. “But after being in the last group about 20 times, you feel the pressure, but you have experience with it, so it becomes less and less.”

There’s a mystical air in the town of St. Andrews, as if something special lurks around each corner. Park feels it. She used the word “special” seven times during her pre-tournament press conference.

So how will Park handle the pressure she must feel from all corners of the world? The same way she dismantled Sebonack. She will tell herself that it’s “OK” if she doesn’t win.

“Wanting more is wanting too much,” Park said.

It’s Park’s way of managing expectations, and no one can argue its effectiveness.

As for that toll booth attendant, she still took Park’s money.

Not famous enough, apparently.

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