USWO: Quiet happiness pushes Park to the top

Inbee Park

Inbee Park

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – Inbee Park’s emotions resemble the line of a straight putt. On the golf course, and in life, she’s about as flatline as they come. As Park works toward the elusive grand slam, that level head might prove to be her most valuable asset.

Park comes to the 68th U.S. Women’s Open as the easy favorite. That’s never before been written at a major. She has been ranked No. 1 in the world for 11 weeks now, but that alone wouldn’t raise eyebrows. Park has drawn attention to the LPGA for winning the first two majors of the year, the first player to do so since Annika Sorenstam in 2005. This week at Sebonack Golf Club, Park has the chance to become only the second player in LPGA history to win the first three majors of a season. The great Babe Zaharias accomplished the feat in 1950.

Park has won three of the tour's majors to date: U.S. Women’s Open (’08), Kraft Nabisco (’13) and Wegmans LPGA Championship (’13). She won the 2012 Evian Masters, which has been elevated to a major beginning this year, and finished runner-up at last year’s Ricoh Women’s British Open.

And as the pressure mounts, this, from Park, is key: “I don’t think about golf once I’m off the golf course.”

It’s difficult to get to know Park. Not because she’s unpleasant but simply because she’s not one to divulge much information without significant prodding. Even with her exceptional run this last year, she’s still somewhat of an unknown.

Park moved to the U.S. from South Korea at age 12 because her family thought the focus in her homeland was too much on golf. They chose Eustis, Fla., because Park’s mother, Sung Kim, found a Korean golf coach there. Park said they were the only Koreans in town, and at an English-speaking Bible school, she was forced to learn the language. At home, Park’s mother let Park and her sister watch only American TV and movies so they could learn the language. Her father, Gun Gyu, stayed back in Korea to tend to the family business, Uwrapco, a bottle-labeling company that her grandfather started 40 years ago. Arizona Iced Tea is among the company's clients.

Park was a force as a junior, becoming a regular in USGA finals. She turned professional at age 17 and earned her card through what’s now known as the Symetra Tour. At 19, Park became the youngest player to win a U.S. Women’s Open in 2008 and seemed poised to become one of Korea’s biggest names.

Her mother said the pressure, however, was too much. She fell to 50th on the money list in 2009, and started playing in Japan to fill out her schedule and gain confidence. When asked how she learned to putt so well, Park points to those years immediately after her USWO victory.

“I honestly think (it’s) because I missed so many greens and fairways after the Open,” she said. “I had to get it up and down from everywhere.”

After three years in Florida, Park moved with her family to Las Vegas to work with instructor Butch Harmon. She lived there for several years before moving her home base back to Korea.

In 2008, Park began dating Gi Hyeob Nam, who played on the Korean PGA. Nam began working with Park as her swing coach in 2011, and the next year began traveling with her full-time. The couple got engaged in the summer of 2011.

Before Nam, Park didn’t enjoy life on the road. He managed to make the road feel like home, and her mother is pleased to report that what we’re seeing now is a content Park, happy with all areas of life.

“She loves golf; she loves her fiance; she loves everything,” Kim said.

After Park won the Wegmans LPGA Championship, she went to Windermere, Fla., to spend time at the home of good friend Na Yeon Choi. They cooked together, played tennis, went bowling.

When asked about Park’s sudden success, Choi laughed and said: “Maybe first of all I have to look for some fiance, then maybe I can have good results too.”

Park’s parents are in Southampton this week. Inbee's sister, Inah, played college golf at USC and plans to go to Korean LPGA Q-School this fall. Kim said next week the family will return to Vegas to look for houses. Inbee is ready to again put down American roots, though she’ll still be largely vested in Korea. Three years ago Park became an investor (to date at least $2 million) into her mother’s bottling company KIB (Kim and Inbee). The family’s investment in Inbee a dozen years ago worked out nicely, and it seems Park is returning the favor.

In Park’s last 23 starts, she has seven victories and five runners-up. That kind of staggering run suggests she’s primed to dominate this tour much like Yani Tseng, Lorena Ochoa and Annika Sorenstam before her.

“I really admire them, where they were positioned, how they handled that kind of pressure,” Park said.

Now, it very well could be her turn.

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