U.S. Women’s Open 2013: Can anyone beat Inbee Park?

Sam Greenwood

A win this week at the U.S. Women’s Open would put Inbee Park into the record books with Babe Zaharias as the only two LPGA players to win the first three majors of the season.

Inbee Park stormed her way into the U.S. Women’s Open at Sebonack Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y. -- and perhaps into the record books -- with a one-hole playoff victory over close friend So Yeon Ryu at last week’s Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.

Park, a five-time winner so far in 2013, cemented her status as the No. 1 player in the world with the win, which she accomplished after rebounding from four shots back in Sunday’s finale at Pinnacle Country Club. The owner of eight LPGA Tour wins will enter Open week fresh from two consecutive triumphs, including her major championship win at the Wegmans LPGA Championship two weeks ago.

A win this week would make Park the second player in LPGA history to earn the first three majors of the season. With the the Evian Championship added to the LPGA’s list of majors, a Park victory would also put her in line to become the only golfer on either the LPGA or PGA Tour to win five majors in a season.

Ten-time major winner Annika Sorenstam, who went for the hat trick in 2005, understands what lies ahead for Park.

“I've been in [Park’s] shoes. I had a chance to go for the third major in a row,” Sorenstam said in a teleconference with reporters last week. “It was a lot of pressure. I wanted to, you know, not necessarily ignore it, but I was trying to not let it get to me. I wanted to just focus. It's another major. It's the U.S. Open, and at the time, I had won two before, and I thought, you know, I can do this.”

Sorenstam claimed the 2005 Kraft Nabisco and LPGA Championships before finishing T23 in the U.S. Women’s Open

“I just put a lot of pressure on myself and I would say that was probably pushing it too hard, especially not getting off to a good start, and then you tried harder. And as you know when you try harder, it almost makes it tougher,” Sorenstam said. “It was in the back of my mind constantly and the media buildup before that was pretty big, also. I was trying to balance my time on practice, but stay focused and just kind of show up like it was a new week and a new tournament.”

Sorenstam and her Golf Channel broadcasting partner Kay Cockerill believe Park has what it takes to overcome the stresses and strains that this week will bring.

“I think she certainly has a very good chance to win three majors in a row because she has the confidence. Her game seems to be in place,” Cockerill, a two-time U.S. Women’s Amateur winner and former LPGA player, said during the teleconference. “All aspects are in place, and she has that calmness of mind to allow herself to hit the shots that are needed down the stretch when a lot of other players succumb to the pressure.”

Park was the youngest winner of the Open in 2008 when she was 19 and did not win again for four years. She credits her swing coach Gy Hyeob Nam, who is also her fiancé, with her current success and calmness, according to Ron Sirak.

"I really started playing well since I started traveling with him,” Park told Sirak recently. “He has been a big help on my swing and mentally and everything.”

With putting always critical at any U.S. Open, Park’s prowess on the greens could be what lifts her into rarified air. She is first on tour in putts per greens in regulation and second in total putts (28.43) per round.

As for Sunday’s round, Park began her day two shots back of four players, including the formerly top-ranked Stacy Lewis. She bounced into contention with three straight birdies in the middle of her front nine (holes six, seven, and eight), while two birdies on Ryu’s outgoing nine gave the 2011 U.S. Women’s Open titleholder the advantage.

After beating back all other comers, Park and Ryu, at 12-under for the week, went into overtime. A birdie putt on the 18th nailed it down for Park, who took on Ryu in extra frames for a second week running.

“I played a good three rounds of golf. Just before the U.S. Open, I think it just gives me a lot of confidence,” Park told reporters after posting a final-round 4-under 67. “It's very good to have this kind of momentum going forward next week, that's for sure. I just had a great two weeks and hopefully one more is left out there.”

Just the seventh player in LPGA lore to win the first two majors of the season, Park joins a stellar cast that includes Sorenstam, Babe Zaharias, Patty Berg, Mickey Wright, and Pat Bradley to achieve such a feat. A victory this week would put her into the history books with the legendary Zaharias as the only players to cadge three in a row.

“I’m just trying to calm down,” Park said about looking ahead to Thursday’s start of the Open after a terrific run-up to the women’s third major of the season. “I'm sure the course is going to make me concentrate, so I'm really looking forward to playing there and not to think about so much of the history or to break somebody's record.

“I don't think about too many things like that,” Park said. “I'm just playing golf because I like to play golf and every week is just really fun for me.”

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