Commentary

Youth is served by Inbee Park at U.S. Women's Open

Inbee Park's win Sunday at the U.S. Women's Open and Kenny Perry's triumph at the Buick Open shed some light on the unique paths it takes to become a champion on the LPGA and PGA tours. ESPN.com's Jason Sobel delves into that subject in the Weekly 18.

Originally Published: June 30, 2008
By Jason Sobel | ESPN.com

Not to get all Mars and Venus on you, but there are some pretty major differences between the men's and women's games at the most elite professional levels.

And not just the obvious ones, either. Yes, the men hit the ball farther and get paid more. And sure, the women compete on shorter courses and show a little more leg.

Look deeper, though, and you'll notice more expansive contrasts. Still not getting it? Here's a hint: Check the birth certificates. The Weekly 18 begins with an examination of how LPGA stars skews so much younger than their male counterparts.

1. Youth is not wasted on the young

Inbee Park won the U.S. Women's Open title on Sunday while still 13 days shy of her 20th birthday, which should have us all repeating one similar refrain: "What took you so long?"

Park is more than a year older than Morgan Pressel was when she won last year's Kraft Nabisco Championship, and the same age as Yani Tseng, who won the LPGA's second major of the season earlier this month. She was joined on the final leaderboard by the likes of Angela Park, 19; Paula Creamer, 21; and Stacy Lewis, who turned pro just three weeks ago but must be nearing retirement at the ripe old age of 23.

For the record, the youngest men's major champion ever was Young Tom Morris, who won the 1868 British Open at 17. (Hence the nickname. His poor dad was saddled with the simple prefix "Old.") The youngest since 1900 was Johnny McDermott, who was just a month younger than Inbee Park is currently when he won the 1911 U.S. Open.

Let's face it: If a 19-year-old would have won at Torrey Pines two weeks ago -- especially by four strokes, as was the differential between Park and her closest competitor -- he would have been hailed as the greatest thing since sliced bread or Francis Ouimet (whichever came first). Heck, Sergio Garcia came close at the 1999 PGA Championship and he's never been able to live down that label of golf's Next Big Thing.

[+] EnlargeKenny Perry
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioKenny Perry skipped the U.S. Open in an effort to focus on making the Ryder Cup team. After Sunday's win, his spot on the squad at Valhalla is looking pretty good.
That Park won't receive such status says less about her game than it does the current state of women's golf. She is hardly alone among the young guns, just one of 28 teenagers to compete at Interlachen. The youngest was 13-year-old Alexis Thompson, who was actually making her second career appearance in the event. The best final-round score (4-under 69) came from Jessica Korda, the 15-year-old daughter of former Australian Open tennis champ Petr Korda, who served as her caddie. Meanwhile, six other amateurs reached the weekend, which could take a decade in the men's game. (The highest total of amateurs to make a single men's U.S. Open cut since 1980 is four.)

As if to only stress the difference between the two circuits, while Park was busy clinching the Open trophy, soon-to-be 48-year-old Kenny Perry was winning the PGA Tour's Buick Open.

All of which leaves us with one prevailing question: Why? Why is winning young specific to the LPGA and a once-in-forever occurrence on the PGA Tour? Our answer: We have no idea.

Sure, there may be some scientific explanation about females maturing faster, physically and athletically, than males. Or there may be some golf-centric response about competition being tougher on the men's circuit than where the women ply their trade.

Whatever the case, such a characteristic helps to give the two tours a distinct personality. Young female champions and older male champions each ensure a certain personality when it comes to the specific winner's circles.

If they ever switch roles? Well, now that would be a major story.

2. Putting for dough

There is one similarity between the men's and women's game: Putting means everything.

Inbee Park ranked fourth on the LPGA Tour in putting entering the festivities at Interlachen and continued the red-hot rock rolling on the year's slickest greens. For the week, Park tied for second in putts per round, needing an average of 28.75.

Which leads to one more similarity between the men's and women's game: Putting means everything -- especially in the final round.

Park also tied for the second-lowest number of total putts in Round 4, needing only 26 when it mattered on Sunday, including a 20-footer for par on the dastardly ninth hole that may have been the key to her four-stroke victory.

"I made a lot of good putts this week," Park said. "I made a lot of 15- and 20-footers. I couldn't really hole a lot of putts earlier this year. I just changed my putter in March and it started rolling and I made a lot of putts since then, so [it's been] very good."

3. From Pak to Park

Like most young players from South Korea, Park credits Se Ri Pak as her motivation and inspiration for taking up the game. Unlike most young players, Park actually remembers Pak winning the Women's Open back in 1998.

"Ten years ago, I was watching her winning this event on TV. I didn't know anything about golf back then, but I was watching her," Park said after her win. "My parents were just watching like 3 in the morning. ... I just woke up and was like, 'What are you guys doing?' And they were like, 'We're watching golf. And Se Ri Pak is leading the tournament, and she's the first Korean winner if she wins this tournament.' I sat down there, but I was half asleep.

"It was very impressive for a little girl and just looking at her. I just thought that I could do it, too, so I just picked up a golf club maybe a couple of days after that."

Yep, that's right. Park began playing golf ... 10 years ago! So, how's your game improved in the past decade?

4. The distance debate

A tip of the cap to reader Bill from Florida, who points out that despite a record 6,789 yards and housing five par-5 holes, Interlachen hardly played into the hands of the big hitters this week. Let's take a look at the top 10 and where they currently rank in driving distance on the LPGA (nonmembers aren't ranked):

Not So Long
Result at U.S. Open Player Avg. driving distance (in yards) 2008 rank
1 Inbee Park 246.3 T-92
2 Helen Alfredsson 252.9 T-50
T-3 Angela Park 244.3 105th
T-3 In-Kyung Kim 240.9 127th
T-3 Stacy Lewis -- --
T-6 Giulia Sergas 255.6 32nd
T-6 Nicole Castrale 249.1 T-73
T-6 Mi Hyun Kim 239.9 T-135
T-6 Paula Creamer 247.4 85th
T-10 Teresa Lu 254.7 37th
T-10 Maria Jose Uribe -- --

So what does it all mean? Once again, the USGA got it right, extending an Open setup to the tips without solely playing into the hands of its strongest competitors.

5. One for the ages

She's won 72 career LPGA titles and 10 major championships, but if there's one shot from Annika Sorenstam you remember above all others, it may be the final one she ever hits in Women's Open competition. (Or maybe not, as we'll examine next.)

After a wayward tee shot on the par-5 final hole, the three-time Open champion chipped back to the fairway and was left with 199 yards to the flagstick. Knowing she needed to make birdie to keep her score under 80, Annika pulled a 6-iron and hit it flush, as the ball bounced and rolled into the cup for what was easily the most dramatic eagle ever from a player who finished in a share of 24th place.

"I was hoping for memories this week, but it was a different type of memory," said Sorenstam, who closed with a 5-over 78. "To finish like that was just -- [it] will stay in my mind forever. ... It was so ironic. I didn't want to shoot 80 or above. And to hole a shot from 200 yards, that's kind of the last thing you think about. But obviously, I'll take it. The crowd was just amazing, the cheers. When I walked up it was so loud, it was so much fun."

6. The next step?

On May 13, in advance of the Sybase Classic, Sorenstam announced that she was stepping away from the game at the end of this season.

"I enjoy the competition, but I'm also a player that, you know, I care too much about this game and I care too much about playing well; that if I can't have it 100 percent, then I don't want to give any," Sorenstam said at the time. "I know what it's like to play at the top, and you know, I don't want to do anything else. So it's either on or it's not."

Of course, she also refrained from using what she termed the "R" word, never quite calling it a retirement. Annika has never since publicly stated that she is leaving the door open to play more events in the future, but she at least jingled the key to that lock when interviewed on NBC's telecast Sunday.

"I am stepping away for sure by the end of the year," she said. "If I come back in a few years, it will definitely be [for] the Open."

Hmmm ... sounds very much to us like a player who is, indeed, "stepping away" but not necessarily "retiring" from the game.

7. Homeward bound

Stop us if you've heard this one: Kenny Perry really, really, really, really wants to play on the U.S. Ryder Cup team.

Really.

It now appears that Perry has locked up a spot on the U.S. roster, moving up to fourth on the points list with Sunday's victory (third if you discount Tiger Woods, who will not play). He'll return to his old Kentucky home at Valhalla in September, but with congratulations come controversy, too.

As you may remember, last month Perry eschewed U.S. Open qualifying, instead opting to take a week off and concentrate on competing in lesser events in an attempt to garner more Ryder Cup points. That theme will continue next month. Perry is already exempt into the British Open field, but said after his victory that he'll remain stateside instead, competing at the opposite-event U.S. Bank Championship in Milwaukee.

"I committed to all these tournaments before when I was ranked 100th in the world," he said. "Now all of a sudden I've won twice, I'm probably top 20 in the world now. I've already committed to Milwaukee and I'm not going to back out."

We said it when Perry decided to forgo the U.S. Open and we'll say it again now that he's committed himself to skipping the British: Earth to Kenny! Come in, Kenny!

Yes, PGA Tour players are independent contractors and can plot out their own schedules. Yes, it's admirable that Perry so desperately wants to be part of the Ryder Cup roster. But elite players should do everything in their power to try to play every single major championship. It's the right thing to do.

[+] EnlargeWoody Austin
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioWoody Austin admitted after his round Sunday that he choked away a potential win at the Buick Open.
Oh, and if we're U.S. captain Paul Azinger? Well, let's just say we wouldn't be too confident in a guy who didn't want to play against the world's best on a major stage.

8. Quitters never win

The only thing worse than Woody Austin's shirts this week? His putting on the final hole.

Wearing a garish American flag/golf combo item that could make Ben Crenshaw's 1999 Ryder Cup "photograph" shirts look snazzy, Austin had a lengthy birdie putt from the front fringe on the 72nd hole to win the tournament. He rolled the putt right at the cup ... and way past it, sealing the lousy attempt with a kiss to the face of his putter. Austin missed the come-backer, then gave a mock fist-pump and one of the quotes of the year afterward.

"I threw it away," he said. "I didn't hit the ball close enough to the hole the last two holes to counteract my yips that I have when it comes to putting. Nobody's fault but my own, so that's two weeks in a row. So I've got to figure it out or I'd better quit."

If there's any consolation, it's that the T-2 finish was enough to move last year's darling of the Presidents Cup into ninth place on the current Ryder Cup standings, which will be enough to get an automatic spot on the roster come September.

9. Legal at 21

Though Bubba Watson's improbable birdie attempt to force a playoff on the final hole didn't find the bottom of the cup, his T-2 result was enough to move his bottom line into seven figures for the third time in as many seasons as a member of the PGA Tour.

Not bad for a guy who still may be hacking his way through the minor leagues if not for an in-season rule change back in 2005. That year, Jason Gore won three Nationwide Tour events to earn a "battlefield" promotion to the big leagues. While only the top 20 on that tour's money list were set to receive PGA Tour status for the following year, that number was increased to 21 to exclude Gore after he punched his own ticket. That meant one extra spot for someone, and it went to Watson, who edged Tom Scherrer by $2,680 for the final card.

After finishing 90th on the 2006 PGA Tour money list, he was 55th last year. On Sunday, he cashed $440,000 for the co-runner-up result, moving into the 45th spot for the season.

10. Open for business

Speaking of Gore, that 2005 march through the Nationwide circuit occurred only after the so-called "Prince of Pinehurst" contended at the U.S. Open. It looks like a few of this year's early unknown contenders at Torrey Pines are similarly following up with strong results of their own.

Kevin Streelman's debut season on the PGA Tour began with no finishes of better than T-14 in his first 17 starts, but the U.S. Open first-round co-leader has finished T-10 and T-12 at the Travelers Championship and Buick Open, respectively, the past two weeks.

Meanwhile, the other, even lesser-known 18-hole leader at Torrey is also reaping the benefits of such an experience. Justin Hicks, who was 160th on the Nationwide Tour money list entering this week's Ford Wayne Gretzky Classic, defeated Casey Wittenberg with a par on the first playoff hole to earn his first career title on that tour.

"I'm kind of just trying to keep riding that wave, I guess, the momentum that I got from playing out there at Torrey," Hicks said. "It certainly means a lot."

11. Chop-ping away

Searching for his third PGA Tour victory since November, Daniel Chopra owned a two-stroke lead through 54 holes at the Buick, which he knew was, well, better than a deficit.

"Everybody says it's tough to play with a lead, but we try to get a lead, and two shots is better than one," Chopra said after shooting 68 on Saturday. "So the bigger the lead you've got, the better. And it just gives that you little bit of a cushion to allow yourself that one extra hole where maybe you should have made a birdie on that, you expected to make birdie and if you don't, it gives you that extra one hole of patience. That's what I'm going to do out there tomorrow is practicing patience all day long."

Uh, maybe not. Chopra lost the lead well before his fourth bogey of the final round on just the seventh hole and was only able to parlay that hot start into a share of 17th place, thanks (or no thanks) to a 3-over 75.

If the winner of the season-opening Mercedes-Benz Championship can take solace in one thing, though, it's that his precipitous fall from the leaderboard wasn't even the worst for a 54-hole leader this month. That "honor" goes to Tim Clark, who shot a final-round 6-over 76 in Memphis to drop to T-18 at tournament's end -- the worst finish by a third-round leader this season.

Even so, it turned out to be a disappointing week for Rambo. What's that? You don't know who Rambo is? Not to worry. Apparently, it's Chopra's new nickname, earned this week, because, well, we'll let him explain:

"It's funny, in the first couple of rounds, the caddies for Jeff Maggert [and] Todd Hamilton, they said, 'We are going to come up with a nickname for you.' And Hamilton's caddie said, 'I think, Daniel, you're Rambo.'

"And I go, 'Rambo?'

'Yeah, you're lethal from the trees.'

"It was funny because I made more birdies out of the trees the first day than I did from the fairway; so that was kind of funny. The next day I hit my bunker shot off my knees on No. 8, my 17th hole for the day, and nearly holed that. And they said, 'Well, maybe we should start calling you Dorf.' That was funny, too.

"I said, 'Well, I think I like Rambo better.' "

12. Daly dose

Though his game still leaves much to be desired, John Daly once again earned YouTube moment of the week honors, employing his usual party trick during a Buick pro-am round with rocker buddy and Michigan native Kid Rock.

Unfortunately for Daly, he didn't fare as well when using a more conventional tee, shooting 72-74 to miss the cut by five strokes in only his second PGA Tour start since April. So far this season, Daly has finished in the money in only three of 11 appearances, with a best result of T-60 at the Mayakoba Golf Classic. The latest MC should be even further cause for concern; if there was ever a tourney at which Daly might feel a little mojo, it's the Buick, where he finished a season-best T-16 last year.

As an aside, we were speaking about Daly with ardent supporter Robert Gamez recently when the longtime pro told us, "He'd give you the shirt off his back."

No kidding. We've seen that video, too.

13. Warwick chills

Count us among those surprised to see Jim Furyk's name nowhere near the top of the leaderboard on Sunday.

Our pretournament pick to win shot 68-72-68-71 to finish T-36 at the Buick, his worst result in the event since a T-38 in 1996. According to a PGA Tour media release, "Furyk's second-round even-par 72 ended his consecutive sub-par streak at 38 rounds. The last time Furyk didn't break par at Warwick Hills came in the third round in 1997, when he shot a 75. That 3-over score is the only above-par round Furyk has shot in this event -- 54 total rounds. Between 1994 and 1997 Furyk shot even-par 72s four times."

Tough to say it's been a disappointing season for the top-10 talent, considering his four top-10 results including a T-2 at Doral, but it's his lowest top-10 total through this point on the schedule since 1999 (excluding 2004, when he missed five months due to wrist surgery).

14. Making his points

The PGA Tour's Player of the Year award -- the Jack Nicklaus Trophy -- is voted on by a balloting of the membership, as the player with the most votes earns the postseason accolade.

The PGA Player of the Year award, however, is given by the PGA of America and is "based on a mathematical formula that weighs tournament wins, official money standing and scoring average," according to its official description.

While the W18 is already on record as stating that Tiger Woods will win the former, despite only making six appearances this season, if Masters champion Trevor Immelman doesn't win the British Open or PGA Championship and no other individual player wins both, it will be interesting to see whether he can retain his lead in the latter. According to the PGA of America, Woods "has accumulated 80 points overall, including points for victories in the Buick [Invitational], Accenture Match Play Championship, Arnold Palmer Invitational and the U.S. Open. He has 20 points for leading the season money list." He is currently trailed by Phil Mickelson (58 points) and Stewart Cink (40).

There hasn't been two different winners of the awards since 1991, when Fred Couples won the tour's trophy and Corey Pavin won the PGA's award.

15. Game, set, match

Jack Nicklaus may own the all-time professional major championship record of 18 victories, but this weekend Greg Norman added 18 major wins to his previous total of two. How'd it happen? He married former tennis star Chris Evert, who the Australian Open (1982, '84), French Open (1974, '75, '79, '80, '83, '85, '86), Wimbledon (1974, '76, '81) and U.S. Open (1975, '76, '77, '78, '80, '82) during her storied career.

From the Palm Beach Post:

Capping a short vacation marred with heavy-handed tactics to keep the press at bay and sarcastic comments from the former spouses they ditched to be together, golfer Greg Norman and retired tennis champ Chris Evert were married Saturday evening near Nassau, the Bahamas.

The ceremony took place before an intimate crowd of fewer than 100 that included NBC's Today host Matt Lauer, one of the groomsmen. Other invitees included George H.W. Bush and Palm Beach billionaire Nelson Peltz.

[+] EnlargePablo Larrazabal
Warren Little/Getty ImagesPablo Larrazabal gets tossed into a pond after his first victory on the European Tour.
"It's not their first time," said a guest who asked to remain anonymous. Actually, it was Evert's third march to the altar, while it's Norman's second. Both are 53, and they have a total of five children from their previous forays into marital bliss. "Because of that, they were planning to keep it small."

16. Rookie rendezvous

What do Richard Finch, James Kingston, Martin Kaymer, SSP Chowrasia, Felipe Aguilar, Mark Brown, Damien McGrane, Peter Lawrie, Hennie Otto, Scott Strange, David Dixon and now Pablo Larrazabal each have in common? They are all first-time winners on the European Tour this season, giving the circuit a dozen newbies in 33 tourneys so far, including majors and WGC events.

Larrazabal became the latest to make his maiden voyage to the winner's circle, earning a four-stroke victory over Colin Montgomerie at the Open de France. It was punctuated by one of the year's most boisterous celebrations on a tour known for boisterous celebrations, as friends mobbed the young Spaniard on the 18th green and tossed him into the nearby water hazard, despite his best attempts to remain dry. After swimming to safety, Larrazabal issued damp hugs to anyone within arms' reach, then removed his waterlogged white shoes and heaved them into the gallery. What about the long walk from the 18th green to the scoring hut? Well, that's what socks are for, right?

17. The full Monty

Entering the week, Montgomerie was ranked 59th on the European team's Ryder Cup points list, just behind such non-luminaries as Michael Lorenzo-Vera, Peter Whiteford, Francois Delamontagne, Robert Dinwiddie, Sam Little and Gary Clark. His solo second-place finish in Paris improves his placement to 14th in the standings, but the eight-time team member is still on the outside looking in when it comes to competing at Valhalla in September.

All of which begs this increasingly intriguing question: If Montgomerie doesn't automatically qualify for the team, will Euro captain Nick Faldo appoint him to one of his two extra selections? The men have had their verbal jousts in the past, but it would behoove the skipper to give a spot to Monty, who has been on every squad since 1991 and owns a 20-9-7 career record, including 6-0-2 in singles.

18. Quote of the week

"Forgive me but I don't even know the winner's name. Let's just call him Pablo. He's got a great future, he held up against a lot of pressure. Good luck to him."
-- Colin Montgomerie on Pablo Larrazabal, who defeated Monty at the Open de France.

Jason Sobel covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.

Jason Sobel | email

Golf Editor, ESPN.com
Jason Sobel, who joined ESPN in 1997, earned four Sports Emmy awards as a member of ESPN's Studio Production department. He became ESPN.com's golf editor in July 2004.