Inbee Park is on a tear on the LPGA Tour like no other golfer since Yani Tseng took control of women’s golf a couple of years ago. And while Park has the opportunity to accomplish a feat not even Tseng, the youngest golfer to win five majors, was able to achieve on her historic run -- win the first three majors of the season -- at least one competitor of the world No. 1 was somewhat unimpressed.
“I don't quite look at Inbee as dominating, if you want to call it that, as Annika [Sorenstam] was and Lorena [Ochoa] was,” Suzann Pettersen, among the best golfers in the world teeing it up in this week’s U.S. Women’s Open, told reporters on the eve of the contest at Sebonack Golf Club.
"I mean, Inbee has had a phenomenal year so far,” Pettersen said Wednesday. “It's not really very surprising that she keeps contending and makes those crucial putts on Sundays. The best part of her game is her putting.”
For sure, Park’s no behemoth off the tee. She ranks 84th in driving distance, compared with Pettersen, who’s 48th.
But with Sebonack offering wide fairways, even someone who’s 55th in driving accuracy, as Park is, has the oddsmakers behind her this week. That’s because she’s won five times in 2013 and is coming into the toughest challenge in women’s golf on the strength of back-to-back wins (including her second major W of the season, at the Wegmans LPGA Championship) and because of her short game.
The tricky greens at the seaside track in Southampton, N.Y., will demand a steady hand and dead eye with the short stick. At first and second on tour in putts per green and putting average, respectively, Park brings that, as well as a calmness nurtured by long work with her mental coach Sookyung Cho and the ability to relax outside the ropes with her swing coach/fiancé Gi Hyeob Nam.
“I've played very good golf the last two or three months,” Park said in a pre-tourney press conference. “Everything's going the way I really want it to. I'm hitting the ball and striking it great and putting it very well.”
Of course, Pettersen was not about to enter the grand slam event giving the game away to the wise guys’ favorite to become the first golfer since Babe Zaharias in 1950 to pull off the hat trick. After all, the field was filled with major winners like Karrie Webb, who was aiming to add an eighth major and third U.S. Women’s Open triumph to her portfolio, and Tseng, who hasn’t notched a win since March 2012, as well as teen phenom Lydia Ko, the youngest to win a major when she did so at the 2012 Canadian Women’s Open at the age of 15.
“I think there is very much a lot of us in the hunt for that No. 1,” Pettersen said, referring to the top ranking Park has had since winning the Kraft Nabisco Championship in April. “I don't really look at other players, how other players do. I know where I stand and I know what I have to do. If I look at my own game, I've been playing good in the tournaments I really want to play well in. If you keep winning tournaments, it will kind of take care of the rest of the stats.”
No argument there, but even the 2011 U.S. Women’s Open champion and Park’s good friend So Yeon Ru might take issue with Pettersen’s bold statement.
"I think everybody's scared of Inbee," Ryu said after losing to Park in a playoff at last week’s LPGA NW Arkansas Championship, "because she's playing super well last 12 months...14 months....So, if her name is top on the leader board, she makes everybody really nervous."
Except, apparently, Pettersen, who will play her opening two rounds with Park and former No. 1, Stacy Lewis. Park, with two birdies to start her first round, made the turn at 2-under and trailed Caroline Hedwall (4-under through six) by two strokes. Pettersen, with three bogies on her card headed for the first tee (her 10th of the day) at 3-over.