PITTSFORD — All the golf instructors tell me there’s one thing to keep in mind when your wife takes up the sport. Don’t give her advice. It’s too personal. Cindy Miller, one of the top teachers around, recommends that men put duct tape over their mouths.
But try telling that to Inbee Park, the best female golfer in the world. On Sunday, Park won the Wegmans LPGA Championship on the third hole of a sudden-death playoff with Scotland’s Catriona Matthew. She became the third woman in the last 30 years to win the season’s first two LPGA majors.
You know what turned the 24-year-old Korean’s career around? Ball-striking lessons from her fiancee, Gihyeob Nam.
OK, so Nam is also a professional golfer. But the two had dated for four years before Park broke down and asked her significant other for serious advice.
Park had won a major, the U.S. Open in 2008. She always had a great short game. She was one of the best putters on tour. But after her breakthrough, she went three years without a win. Late in the 2011 season, she asked Nam to help with her swing.
Duct tape, my eye. Park says Nam, who travels with her, provided “comfort and confidence.” Her game went into the stratosphere. In 2012, the native of Seoul, South Korea, won two events and had 10 straight top 10 finishes. She became the fifth woman to pass $2 million in earnings in a season and won the LPGA’s Vare Trophy for low-stroke average.
This season, she has been even better. Park has four wins and six top 10 finishes already. Over a torrid 52-week stretch going back to last year’s Wegmans LPGA at Locust Hill, Park has won six tournaments and rocketed from No. 26 to No. 1 in the world rankings.
Lessons from your man?
“It worked out good for me,” Park said with a laugh after surviving a 39-hole ordeal. The third and fourth rounds were played Sunday because the opening round was washed out Thursday. “I’m playing the best game in my career with him. Not today, though, with the way I struck the ball.”
During that final round, Park might have reconsidered the duct tape idea. For whatever reason – the pressure, the 36 holes, or the fiendish Locust Hill rough – she was all over the place in the final round. She missed fairways. She hit trees (luckily getting a bounce to the fairway on one occasion). She couldn’t make any long putts.
Park played the last two rounds with Morgan Pressel, who had a five-shot lead going to the back nine of the third round before Locust Hill began having its way. Park surged to a one-shot lead after the third round. She went up by two, then Pressel tied her. After 13, Park was back ahead by three.
It appeared over. It seemed like match play. But everyone forgot about Matthew, a 43-year-old Scotswoman who had one major, the 2009 British Open, on her resume. Matthew shot 68 in the final round to come in 5-under par.
Matthew is a mother of two young girls, who stay at home with their father, rooting along with everyone else in the country where golf was born. She says her youngest, 4-year-old Sophie, tells her not to come back without a trophy.
“She’s a tough taskmaster,” Matthew said. “I didn’t realistically think I could win, so getting into a playoff felt pretty good. It was obviously disappointing to lose, but overall I had a pretty good week.”
The last time Matthew checked a scoreboard during her round, Park was three shots ahead. She was surprised to find that Park arrived at the 18th green needing to two-putt to make bogey and force a playoff.
Park nearly handed away the title. But after frittering away her lead with bogeys on the 14th, 16th and 18th holes of the final round, the world’s No. 1 woman golfer reached down and made all the big shots in the playoff.
“The playoff I wasn’t getting that nervous,” Park said. “I was more nervous on the final round because my ball was just going everywhere. I wasn’t too comfortable with my swing. So I really expected nothing going into the playoff. I was just happy that I actually made a playoff. ... I tried to hit every fairway and green. My caddie said every fairway I hit he would buy me a big dinner. I had three fairways there, so that’s three dinners he owes me.”
Park admitted her legs were getting a little heavy toward the end.
She’s a stocky woman, and walking 36 holes through soggy ground and thick rough couldn’t have been easy. But she said everyone is fit enough to play 36 holes. It was more a mental challenge than anything.
She was up to it. In all sports, the true champions prove themselves when circumstances are the toughest, when they’re weary and not at their best. Park showed in that playoff that she’s a worthy champion, a true No. 1.
“Yeah, I felt like I ran a marathon today,” Park said. “I was happy that we got it done. Major championships I think should have this kind of challenge. Not the 36 holes every time, but this golf course was playing tough and fair at the same time, and I really enjoyed it.”
Park became the ninth straight Asian to win a women’s major. People quote that statistic as if it were a problem. The fact is, the LPGA has struggled for exposure and tournaments in this country. There’s a good chance Wegmans will no longer provide the level of sponsorship to support a major. But they have a wonderful champion in Park, who settled in Las Vegas when she was 14 and won the U.S. Girls Junior a year later.
She was denied an LPGA waiver at 17, but won her LPGA card in ’07 and won the U.S. Open a year later at 19, becoming the youngest woman ever to do so.
It was four years later, though, when Park realized the enormous potential within. It’s quite rare, ladies, but sometimes when your man opens his mouth it actually pays to listen.