Inbee Park finds her touch in time
PINEHURST, N.C. -- Inbee Park admits she took part of her golf game for granted, simply because it always came easily for her. But for the first few months of the 2014 LPGA season, she was surprised to find it wasn't that easy after all.
"Considering how I've putted in the past, I think this year is probably the worst I've putted in a while," said Park, the defending champion at the U.S. Women's Open. "My ball-striking was getting a lot better in the last couple of years. I never struggled with the putter. I never thought that would be a problem."
But isn't that the thing with golf? Right when you think you've finally got it all together -- which Park certainly did in winning three consecutive majors last year -- something goes south.
Or at least relatively so. It's not as if Park's game has fallen apart. To the contrary, she has eight top-10 finishes in 11 events in 2014, including her first victory since the U.S. Women's Open last year. Park shot a final-round 61 to win the Manulife Financial LPGA Classic in Canada on June 8.
You're not coming close to that kind of number without rolling the ball like a magician, and Park did indeed feel a lot like her old self in that event. Last week, she kept a close eye on U.S. Open winner Martin Kaymer here at Pinehurst No. 2, noticing how often he used his putter any time he was near the green.
"It looks like the putter is the most accurate club in the bag here," Park said. "So I'll try to use the putter as many times as I can."
Park is already in rare company as a two-time winner of this major championship, and she's trying to join an even more exclusive club by taking the title three times. Still just 25 -- she'll turn 26 in July -- Park will be playing in her ninth U.S. Women's Open, and she says major championships bring out the best in her.
Furthermore, all the attention she received last year as she found herself pursuing the Grand Slam has made her a better golfer -- even if all that progress and experience didn't seem to be translating to victories earlier this year.
It wasn't that Park didn't give herself chances; in fact, she says she was hitting the ball better than she did a year ago. It was just that those 5-foot putts she couldn't miss in 2013 -- along with the 10-to-12-footers that were almost as automatic -- were causing unexpected doubts.
Then she missed the cut at the Airbus LPGA Classic in May. And as much as you can't imagine Park getting ticked off, she did. Or at least she had a talk with herself, like, "All right, a lot of big events are coming up. It's time to get in gear. Let's re-evaluate what you're doing."
She subsequently finished eighth at the ShopRite Classic, and her 10th career victory came the next week.
"I was probably getting a little more frustrated than I should have," Park said. "Because I was finishing in the top five, top 10, and that's still good golf. I put myself in the right position, but I couldn't hole the putts."
Park said she studied video of herself to see what she might be doing wrong. She paid a lot of attention to her performance at last year's U.S. Women's Open at Sebonack in New York, particularly the first two days, when she shot 67 and 68.
"It felt like my putter head was coming through too much -- too high from the ground when I did the follow-through," Park said. "So I tried to do it lower to the ground. And that seemed like it's working well."
Park, who has surrendered her No. 1 ranking to American Stacy Lewis, acknowledged she'd like to get it back before the end of this year.
And she'd certainly love to add another U.S. Women's Open title to her résumé. If Park were to win, she'd be the seventh woman to defend her title at this event. The last to do it was Australia's Karrie Webb in 2001.
Park also could keep South Korea's streak alive in the U.S. Women's Open; golfers from that nation have won the last three and five of the last six titles.
Park attended a dinner for past champions of the event Tuesday and got a lot of autographs. It also reminded her that she's a pretty darn good golfer.
"Everyone talked about their memories of winning the U.S. Open," said Park, whose first championship at this event was in 2008. "It was really a cool thing that the USGA put on something like that. There's not many multiple winners of the U.S. Women's Open. So I felt really special being in that room, as well."