WILLIAMSBURG — When last seen in these parts, Inbee Park was missing the cut at Kingsmill's 2009 Michelob Ultra Open. A major championship in hand, she was ranked 27th in the world, but truth be told, Park had little grasp for what it takes to compete on the LPGA Tour.
Little wonder. Park was 20 years young, a prodigy with the putter but skittish with the other clubs in her bag.
This week, Park is back in Williamsburg, fresh off her third victory of the season. She's No. 1 in the world and absolutely a threat to win the Kingsmill Championship that begins Thursday.
Talk about a transformation.
"Just living my dream every day," Park said Tuesday after a practice round. "That's been my dream since I started playing golf, to be the best in the world."
Born in Seoul to thriving South Korean entrepreneurs, Park began playing at age 10. Soon she was living in the United States, winning junior tournaments and attending a Las Vegas high school.
Two years after graduation, Park won the 2008 U.S. Women's Open at age 19, the event's youngest champion. Trailing leader Stacy Lewis by two shots, Park fired a Sunday 71 and coasted to a four-stroke victory.
"I kind of treated the U.S. Women's Open like one of my younger (United States Golf Association) tournaments," Park said. "I didn't actually know what I was doing. I was just really young, didn't feel that much pressure, didn't really know what I was playing for."
Soon the pressure and stakes exacted their toll, as they do from even the best. Park went winless in 2009, '10 and '11, managing only two top-10 finishes in the latter year.
So the question had to be asked: Was Park's U.S. Open title a fluke?
She answered resoundingly last season with victories at the Evian Masters and LPGA Malaysia. Park, who skipped last year's Tour return to Kingsmill, led the circuit in scoring average at 70.21 and finished second to Lewis in the player of the year standings.
This year, Park has won three times in seven starts, and the victories could not have been more different.
At the LPGA Thailand, 17-year-old Ariya Jutanugarn tripled-bogeyed the final hole to hand Park a one-stroke win. Park cruised by four at the Kraft Nabisco for her second major, and last week she birdied the 72nd hole to edge Spain's Carlota Ciganda by a shot at the inaugural North Texas LPGA Shootout.
"I'm very impressed with her play," said defending Kingsmill champion and former world No. 1 Jiyai Shin. "Last year I played with her at the British Open. … Her swing tempo is every time the same. Even in different weather, conditions, lie, she doesn't care. …
"Her strength is putting. … I get more inspired from her. … If I was putting like her, I could (get) a couple more wins."
Park, 24, credits Gi Hyeob Nam, a former Korean PGA player to whom she is engaged, with her improved ball-striking and accuracy. The pair had been dating for some time before Nam became her coach two-and-a-half years ago.
Mixing business and romance can be dicey — roses after a contentious practice? — but you can't argue with five wins in the last 18 events.
"I'm just trying to swing comfortable," Park said. "I'm not trying to be too technical. … I don't really pay too much attention to that. I really rely on my feelings.
"Sometimes when you think about it too much, that can be a very heavy spot. … You can put a lot of pressure on yourself. … I'm not trying to say I need to win every week. I just try to enjoy what I'm doing. That's a gift."
Park has not fared well at Kingsmill, missing the cut in 2007 as a rookie, tying for 16th in '08 and missing the cut in '09. She's played eight competitive rounds on the resort's River Course to an 11-over-par aggregate.
But Park was a fledging then. Now she's established, "honored," in her word, to have supplanted Lewis atop the world rankings three weeks ago.
"It was a tough time for me," Park said of her victory drought. "I wasn't hitting the ball great. I was really struggling with my driver, couldn't hit a tee shot. … I was still putting really (well) … but just couldn't keep it in the fairway.
"I needed to get experience on the LPGA Tour, get lessons from all the other players out here who are much better than me. I've learned a lot the last few years."
Learned so much that no one at present is better.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun