KILDEER, Ill. – Caddie David Jones thinks they should put a plaque near the 16th green at Kemper Lakes Golf Club where Sung Hyun Park slashed through the weeds with a 58-degree wedge at the water’s edge, nestling it to 3 feet.
The spectacular par save was the shot of the championship for Park, the player whose nickname in South Korea translates to “Shut up and attack!”
The normally stoic Park broke down in tears at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship after securing her second major title in a playoff victory over fellow South Korean So Yeon Ryu. The emotional reaction surprised even Park, whose blank face and shy demeanor makes her somewhat of a mystery to American fans and LPGA players alike. One thing on which everyone can agree – the talent is endless. It’s the reason she picked up the nickname “Tiger” shortly after joining the U.S.-based tour.
“Actually, this is my first time feeling like this kind of emotion,” said Park through an interpreter. “Like, I couldn’t help that.”
It was a release, said Jones, of all the pressure that had built up after four missed cuts in five weeks. That run included a victory at the 36-hole weather-shortened Volunteers of America LPGA Texas Classic in May, but even Park probably put an asterisk by it.
“She just had to get out of her own way,” said Jones. “She’s so good, in a normal day, she would have to try and miss the cut.”
Handling the fame and pressure that comes with hailing from a golf-crazed culture like South Korea plays as much a role in someone like Park’s success as any swing change. It’s a matter of comfort. To that end, Park quit reading her own press.
Ryu, a former No. 1, said the only way a player can get through that phase it to tackle it head on.
“When you fail,” Ryu said, “you start to realize how much pressure you’re holding on. …. Then you start to think about how to manage the pressure.”
Park’s closing 3-under 69 was the day’s only bogey-free performance. She finished locked at 10-under 278 with Ryu (73) and Nasa Hataoka, a 19-year-old from Japan who closed with a 63 the week before in Arkansas to win her first event. Hataoka, who is actually named after the U.S. space program, began the final round at the KPMG nine strokes back of Ryu and posted closing 64 on the strength of two eagles and eight one-putts to finish her round. Hataoka’s bid to complete the largest comeback in LPGA major championship history fell short on the first playoff hole after Park and Ryu both made birdies.
Brooke Henderson snapped the shaft of a wedge after slamming it against her bag on the 11th hole. The player who started the day only three shots back ran hot after her new putter went cold. Henderson’s closing 74 dropped her into a share of sixth, her worst finish in four appearances at this event.
Park also put a new putter in the bag, switching from the TaylorMade Spider Tour Red to the Black model and taking an inch off the length of the shaft to 33 inches. But it was a new routine, Jones said, that really made the difference. Rather than look at the ground during her practice strokes, she started to look at the hole.
“She’s naturally the best athlete I’ve ever seen,” said Jones. “When you don’t focus on a target, you don’t actually let your athleticism come out. What she’s done with her routine is become target- oriented. She didn’t hole that many putts over the last two days, other than the first day a bit today, but she rolled it good.”
Ryu’s biggest mistake of the day came on the 17th hole in regulation when she rinsed her approach into a breeze on the penultimate par 3, one of three closing holes known as “The Gauntlet.” The resulting double bogey erased her two-shot lead with one to play, putting her into a tie for first with Park and Hataoka.
“I don’t think the number was bad,” said Ryu, “but just drew it a little bit too much.”
As the storm clouds rolled into suburban Chicago, several members of Park’s South Korean fan club rolled out a congratulatory banner along with a heaping bouquet of roses and a bottle of bubbly.
“She likes Rose,” one noted as they awaited Park’s return to the 18th green for the awards ceremony.
It was a scene similar to the one that played out last year at the U.S. Women’s Open where Park claimed her first major title, setting a up a season in which she took a share of LPGA Player of the Year honors with Ryu. The 24-year-old Park became the sixth South Korean to win multiple majors, joining Inbee Park (7), Se Ri Pak (5), In Gee Chun (2), Jiyai Shin (2) and Ryu (2).
“This is my second major win in two years,” said a smiling Park, “and I can’t still believe what I’ve done, but I’m really happy.” Gwk