By Dave Shedloski
Edina, Minn. – The sound of screaming awakened a 9-year-old child at 3 a.m. and changed the course of her life – or, rather, changed her life to put her on course.
A golf course, which up until then she had never known existed.
Inbee Park, the newly minted U.S. Women’s Open champion, was that child, and the screaming she heard was that of her parents, who were glued to the television set in the middle of the night in their home in Pundang, South Korea, watching countrywoman Se Ri Pak defeat Jenny Chausiriporn in a playoff in the 1998 Women’s Open at Blackwolf Run in Kohler, Wis.
Pak was just 20 then, and she became the youngest winner in U.S. Women’s Open history – until Sunday, that is, when Park, 19, eclipsed the mark with her resounding four-stroke victory in the 63rd Open at Interlachen Country Club.
|Mission accomplished: Inbee Park acknowledges the cheers after winning, but more important, it validated her success since coming to the U.S. as a teenager. (Hunter Martin/USGA)
With a final-round 2-under 71, Park overcame a two-stroke deficit to rookie Stacy Lewis and ran away from the field with a 9-under 283 total. The 2002 U.S. Girls’ Junior champion, Park was the only player to fire four sub-par rounds at Interlachen and joined Mickey Wright, Joanne Carner Gunderson, Amy Alcott and Hollis Stacy as the only players to win the Girls’ Junior and the Women’s Open.
"I really can’t believe I just did this," said Park after posting one of eight sub-par rounds on a windy and gut-churning final day. "I feel very honored that I win this championship … and especially with Annika’s (Sorenstam) last event, I really want to share this win with her, too."
Pak missed her first cut in the U.S. Women’s Open this week, but she still impacted the outcome via Park, who couldn’t get back to sleep and ended up staying awake through the night to witness the first Korean to win the championship. "I didn’t know anything about golf back then," Park said. "But I was watching her. It was very impressive for a little girl and just looking at her. Se Ri did a lot to inspire a lot of 19-year-old girls."
Park was one of them. She picked up a golf club a couple days later. Her father, Jungyu, gave her a woman’s golf club and Inbee broke it within two months from overuse. Then she started playing with men’s clubs and her competitive career began just four months after introduction to the game.
Yes, she caught on quickly. When Park and her mother, Sung Kim, moved to Florida, Park competed in American Junior Golf Association events, and she won nine titles and became a five-time Rolex Junior All-American. In addition to her 2002 victory in the U.S. Girls Junior, she was a two-time runner-up in 2003 and ’05 as well as a finalist in the ’03 U.S. Women’s Amateur.
Professional victories have not come so readily. Sunday’s Open triumph was her first as a pro. Her 2007 season on the LPGA Tour has been decent; she collected five top-10 finishes prior to the championship. She also endured a couple of near misses.
"You learn from your mistakes," she said with a shrug.
And she has learned. And she has grown up.
When Park, who lives in Las Vegas, won the U.S. Girls’ Junior six years ago, she was a shy youngster who could barely speak English and whose every succeeding win that week on the march to the title made her even more reserved, more careful.
On Sunday, Park showed how much she has grown as a golfer and as a person. And she was clear in her communication, not at all shy.
"I am very confident now, and I think I can do it again," she said.
Of course, that might depend, somewhat, on how many little girls in Korea stayed up late last night, watching in wonder, getting inspired to change the course of their lives.
Dave Shedloski is a freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on www.uswomensopen.com.