Inbee Park starting year strong

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In four tournaments this year, Inbee Park has four top-10 finishes -- and she says she's hitting the ball better than last year.

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. -- Golf is an especially fickle game. Even the best players accept that any mastery of the sport is simply on loan and always susceptible to immediate recall. Like bad backs, good golf comes and it goes. But every now and then -- for some more than others -- planets align, confidence soars, every bounce is benevolent and the game really isn't psychologically cruel.

When that happens, there's only one rule: Don't try to understand it, just ride that horse until there is no giddyup left to go.

As the LPGA prepares for Thursday's opening round of the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the first major championship of the season, Inbee Park sits high in the saddle.

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When Inbee Park won the Kraft Nabisco last year, it was her first of three majors in a row and one of six victories overall.

"I mean, if you're really like on the hot streak, you're really playing well, you think that this is your year, nobody wants to stop that year," Park said. "Everybody wants to see how good you can be. Yeah, obviously try to keep that going."

That's the hard part.

Park won last year's Kraft Nabisco by 4 shots, taking the second-round lead and never looking back.

Two months later, she won the LPGA Championship in a playoff with Catriona Matthew. Three weeks after that came an 8-shot runaway victory in the U.S. Women's Open, making her the first woman since Babe Zaharias in 1950 to win a season's first three majors.

When the season was complete, although she failed to be a factor in the final two majors (tied for 42nd in the Women's British and tied for 67th in the Evian), Park had six victories and five additional top-10s.

She became the first South Korean to win Rolex Player of the Year honors. She claimed a second consecutive LPGA money title and took over the world's No. 1 ranking, arriving at Mission Hills Country Club this week with a 51-week stronghold on the top spot.

So far this season, she has four top-10s, including a runner-up in Thailand, in four starts.

Yeah, I had a really good start this year, probably more consistent than last year. I mean, last year I won before coming this week, but my game was just everywhere.
Inbee Park

She's riding high.

"Yeah, I had a really good start this year, probably more consistent than last year," Park said. "I mean, last year I won before coming this week, but my game was just everywhere.

"I just haven't been putting that well, not as good as last year. ... If you're confident with your ballstriking, you can get close to winning. Hopefully, I can hole some putts this week.''

Until last year, Park had four career titles, including the 2008 U.S. Women's Open, when she was 19. Solid. Dependable. A consistent threat. Just not quite among the tour's elite.

Now, she's a steamroller.

"I think it's gotten to the point where you're never surprised when you see her name up there," said world No. 3 Stacy Lewis. "It was like last week, you didn't see her name all week, all of a sudden she finishes up there in the top 10. It's just every week she's there.

"There's nothing flashy about Inbee's game, but she gets it done. It doesn't matter what it looks like, it just matters what that score looks like on the scorecard."

Park's hot hand supports Lewis' assessment.

"The things I've done were very amazing,'' she said. "Starting this year, I started with zero wins, and you know, trying to think this year I've got to do better than last year, that means I've got to win three or more majors and three or more wins, and that feels forever. ... That just means how hard it was to do.''

It's no small coincidence that going hand in hand with Park's suddenly stellar play is her relationship with her swing coach, Gi Hyeob Nam, who is also her fiancé. They have been engaged for just more than two years. Nam began traveling full-time with Park in 2012, and her rise and their relationship coincide almost perfectly.

When Park accepted her Rolex Player of the Year award last year, she pointed to Nam as an important reason for success.

"He took a tremendous risk when he decided to stand by me and support me on the tour," Park said. "I don't think I could thank him enough for the sacrifices he has made. Despite not speaking English, he made a decision to move to a foreign country with only one thing -- faith in me.

"Some people say he is the lucky one, but they are wrong. I am the lucky one. Because of him, I was able to fall in love again with golf. I began to enjoy my life on tour, and that is reflected in my play."

Enjoy the ride.

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