PITTSFORD — It had all the makings of a coronation for Inbee Park.
Until it almost wasn’t.
The world’s No. 1 player had to persevere Sunday to win her second straight major championship. Against a swing that had deserted her. Against the mental and physical fatigue that comes with playing 39 holes on a golf course that never lets up. Against an unlikely veteran opponent in a sudden-death playoff.
Park did all of that at Locust Hill Country Club, winning the Wegmans LPGA Championship with a 20-foot birdie putt on the same 18th hole that she had bogeyed just a half hour earlier. When that putt on the 72nd hole of the championship missed, it allowed 43-year-old Catriona Matthew of Scotland to sneak into a playoff.
“I think I was actually really lucky to get in the playoff,” Park said. “The amount of fairways I was missing today, it’s almost a miracle that I won.”
Park held a three-shot lead standing on the 14th tee in the fourth round, but she was battling. A bogey on the 14th opened the door a crack. It was off the hinges after another dropped shot on the 16th.
“The final round, I think I was getting a little bit tired,” she said. “I just couldn’t figure out the right swing.”
Park hit only six fairways in the final round to close with a 3-over 75, but she discovered her form just in time, splitting all three fairways in the playoff. After both players made par on the first two sudden-death holes, Matthew found trouble when her drive found the right rough on the third playoff hole. It was the cardinal sin at Locust Hill all week. Wayward shots were engulfed by ankle-high rough that made advancing the ball to the green often impossible.
“What caused it, I don’t know,” Matthew said of her decisive pushed drive. “I wish I knew.”
Matthew’s second shot on the final playoff hole found the heavy cabbage short and left of the green. Park, meanwhile, was on the putting surface in two. Matthew’s third shot did not advance out of the rough, and she chipped on with her fourth.
That left Park with two putts for the championship – and she only needed one. When the birdie dropped, she became just the third player in the past 40 years – and only the seventh ever – to win the season’s first two majors, joining Annika Sorenstam in 2005 and Pat Bradley in 1986.
It was an outcome that seemed at a time inconceivable and at a later time certain.
When rain washed out the first round Thursday it set up a 36-hole marathon finish that promised to be a grind. Park found herself five shots behind playing partner and leader Morgan Pressel beginning the back nine of the morning’s third round.
She needed only eight holes to erase the deficit. Pressel bogeyed the par-4 holes at No. 10 and No. 12 to drop to 7 under, while Park played a flawless back nine with four birdies to reach 8 under through 54 holes.
For much of the final round, it looked as if those two would go head-to-head for the championship. They were tied for the lead at 7 under after Pressel made birdie and Park bogeyed the par-5 eighth hole.
“I didn’t think Inbee would actually give me as much of a window as she did,” Pressel said. “And when she gave me a window, I gave it right back to her.”
She did so with a bogey on the par-4 10th hole when a 3-foot par putt spun off the left edge.
“I had chances. Nothing went in, and that happens,” Pressel said.
Matthew, meanwhile, went about her business quietly. The No. 16 player in the world thought she was an afterthought at the beginning of the final round, which she started at 1 under, seven shots back.
Even after a bogey-free round of 4-under 68 gave her the clubhouse lead at 5-under 283, she didn’t think she had done enough.
“Coming down the last I didn’t actually realize quite where I was,” she said. “When I started today the last round I probably didn’t realize I could win.”
Had she, she would have become the LPGA’s second-oldest major winner, behind only 45-year-old Fay Crocker in the 1960 Titleholders Championship.
Instead, it was Park who continued a remarkable run. In her last 22 events she has six wins and six runner-up finishes. When she played in this event last season, she was ranked 26th in the world. Since that time, she’s earned more than $3.3 million on tour. She has four victories this season and with a $337,500 first prize Sunday, more than $1.22 million in earnings. The 25-year-old from South Korea went to No. 1 in the world after winning the Kraft Nabisco Championship in April, the season’s first major.
“A year ago everything, I think, started to click,” she said.
Pettersen made a change in her putting address between the third and fourth rounds – an adjustment she was angry at herself for not making earlier.
“I’m very happy the way I kind of fought back,” she said. “And then I’m really upset with myself that I didn’t make that adjustment way early. But that’s what it is when you’re blonde. Sometimes it takes you a little longer.”
Defending champion Shanshan Feng of China and American Michelle Wie were part of a tie for ninth place at 286.